The Places Love Takes You

WORDS Dwain Hebda
Images courtesy Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkoma, Dustin and Anna Booth

A conversation with Dustin and Anna Booth, if held within earshot of their home in Van Buren, is set to the joyful melody of children’s voices. In the background, three-and-a-half-year-old Easton and his sixteen-month-old sister Eliza fill the air with their angelic voices. The young parents are full of profound, if slightly weary, gratitude. It is, after all, music to their ears.

“I get to stay home with the kids,” says Anna when asked her career. “They are such a blessing.”

“Blessing” is a word not used lightly between Anna and her husband, a State Farm Insurance agent. Every moment spent with their family reminds them of that, especially the rambunctious Easton. To the uninitiated, he’s the epitome of a boy at full speed and full volume. But learn a little more about the tot’s entry into the world and you quickly understand why they see him as being delivered from on high.

“Easton was unexpectedly six weeks early,” Anna says. “He was our first child. We didn’t know what to expect. Since he was born prematurely, his lungs had not fully developed yet. We had to immediately go into the NICU where he had to basically get stronger and finish developing his lungs.”

“We’re in so much shock in the beginning, because Anna’s water broke in the middle of the night,” Dustin adds. “And then when he was born, the NICU people were in the room when Anna delivered Easton. It wasn’t like, ‘OK we’re going to have to put a game plan together.’ It was like life and death, immediately. He couldn’t breathe, so they had to help him, which obviously then got his heart up. I remember getting pulled a million different directions for the first forty-eight hours.”

One of the earliest conversations Mercy Hospital staff had with the stunned couple in those first panic-stricken hours was about an on-site amenity for parents in their situation, the Ronald McDonald House Family Room. Opened in 2010, the Family Room provides an area near the NICU for family members to enjoy a hot meal, use the laundry or shower facilities or just sit, decompress, and breathe. And, thanks to four sleeping rooms, it can also serve as a home away from home, as it did in Anna and Dustin’s case for fifteen days, free of charge.

“We were never far away, which was nice,” Anna says. “We were fortunate that we don’t live too terribly far from the hospital but still, just being able to wake up in the middle of the night and go to every feeding meant the world to me not having to think about planning meals or anything like that or even packing toiletries. Simple things like that, you don’t think of, especially as a first-time mom. You’re so worried about your baby, you’re not really worried about yourself.”

“In the NICU world, gaining weight is so crucial and therefore every feeding is very, very important,” Dustin remembers. “We’re extremely competitive people; we wanted to be at every feeding. The NICU nurses were awesome, but we wanted to be there, too. Without Ronald McDonald House, there’s no physical way that could have happened. So that was really, really, big.”

Easton’s prognosis was confirmed by about the second day, and it was good by the standards of many who come to Ronald McDonald House. Some families spend months in the organization’s hospitality, with conditions and outcomes far more sobering. Spending time with other families was an experience both therapeutic and profound for the Booths.

“You really become a community in the family room,” Dustin says. “We were very fortunate Easton had a very clear exit plan from the hospital. A lot of families can’t say that and for them, every day is a roller coaster. There are big wins where you’re cheering on each other to do the seat belt check as they room out. And vice versa, there’s some very sad days in there, too, that totally change the environment in that place.

“We met a family there. The dad came in the second day we were there, and he looked like how I’m sure I looked–ghost-faced, scared, what’s happening to my son? Anna very quickly connected with the mother, and they ended up being right beside us. Once we were both out, we had dinner at each other’s houses. We became friends.”

The overall experience made such an impact on the couple that almost immediately after bringing Easton home, they began looking into how they could be a part of other families’ experience through Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkoma.

“There are a lot of parents like we were – we’d heard of Ronald McDonald House, but we didn’t know exactly what they did or what kind of local involvement they had,” Anna says. “Once we came home, our desire to help was almost immediate. We knew that without Ronald McDonald House, our experience would have been so much harder and more emotional and impossible, basically. We knew right away this is an organization that any time they need help, we’re going to be there.”

Dustin and Anna dove into the effort headfirst–in addition to monetary donations, Anna cooks meals to take to the Family Room and Dustin is pursuing a matching grant through State Farm to help support the group’s mission. The couple also came up with a way to lend a highly personal touch to their volunteer work.

“For Easton’s first birthday, instead of presents, we requested donation items for Ronald McDonald House,” Anna says. “All our family gave towels and hygiene products and stuff like that. We try to do that every year on his birthday. We take a substantial donation of items to stock their pantry, stock their supply closet. It has become a fun tradition.”

On Easton’s third birthday, the couple received an unexpected treat, an exclusive VIP tour of the new stand-alone Ronald McDonald House. Besides being awestruck by the beautiful new facility, the 8,500-square-foot, eleven-suite space also helped them envision how many more families can be served. The very thought of it reinvigorates their volunteer spirit with evangelical fervor.

“You can donate in many different ways,” Dustin says. “You can donate your time and talent by cooking a meal and bringing some supplies and things like that. Anytime I work with anybody on the Ronald McDonald team, they’re doing all the work behind the scenes for me in getting donation forms matched up and taking care of the paperwork. They’re very professional in how they handle that, but in a no-pressure way.

“The biggest thing to me is, I’m a big believer in trying to keep things local. We’re in an area that doesn’t have the most financial blessings, so to be able to keep everything local is very important. Because of donations, there’s no pressure for people who are staying in the house to feel guilty about cost. Others are taking care of it.”

Given the last word, Anna ponders how to sum up everything Ronald McDonald House has meant to the family and as she does so, Easton’s shrill, joyful voice can be heard echoing in the background. She smiles. “For me personally, the thing you just never think about is leaving the hospital without your child,” she says. “That still, to this day, gives me goosebumps thinking about those families that have to do that.

“The other part is the toll that it takes on everyone around you because everyone cares about you. They want to help. They want to provide those meals. Ronald McDonald House relieves some of that pressure from your loved ones and they can focus on just praying for you, on loving you and you child or the other children in the family versus trying to make sure all the other needs are met. Ronald McDonald House and the Family Room alleviates so much of that stress so you can focus solely on your child and getting them healthy.”

To learn more or to donate, contact Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkoma
479.756.5600 or



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