The FTC requires me to tell you that I am a brand ambassador for McDonald's of Central Arkansas. But mainly, I talk about McDonald's because I (and my kids) love the place.
Last week I had the privilege of visiting the Ronald McDonald House in Little Rock. The Ronald McDonald House is a home for 28 families who have children receiving treatment next door at Arkansas Children's Hospital. The range of these children's conditions varies, but they are all serious and some terminal. I realized when I visited I live a blessed and sheltered life. I am healthy. My children are healthy. My extended family is. I've never known even a glimpse of what the families in that house are going through. But from the time I stepped in the door, I imagined what it must be like.
The house was smaller and more modest than I expected. Gray hallways lined with dorm-style rooms. Community bathrooms. Low ceilings. I quickly understood why a new house is needed and am thrilled one is on its way. The 28 rooms in this house were full on this day. Somber faced family members walked the narrow halls while others smiled and corralled their toddlers. One man sat with his head down alone in the dining room, while yellow daisies on the table encouraged him to lift his chin.
I felt a presence in this place. It was solemn, yes. The magnitude of what these families face was evident. But it was also peaceful. Hopeful even. Here was a place where, when a family's world has been pummeled, they can come and draw support from others like them. They can enjoy a free home-cooked meal each night. And they can be treated with all the care and concern they deserve, especially after a long, emotional day at the hospital.
My time in the house showed me that much of the love and care inside the walls is thanks to one woman, House Operations Manager Wilma Foster. Her official title and responsibilities cover much, but you might call her the "House Mother." She treated me like family from the moment I arrived, as I could see she did to every person there. We joked and chatted and cut up celery (which she let me know I was doing wrong). And with her as my guide, we lovingly prepared a meal of sustenance for those who needed it.
The Ronald McDonald House relies on something called "Supper Club" to prepare nightly meals for its families. Groups of any size can sign up to purchase and come prepare a meal for the evening. The night I was there was a bit different because no volunteers had signed up so "the house" (Wilma and I) was taking care of dinner. A few days before, she had told me on the phone we were going to cook ham or brisket on that night. But when I got there, she said a group had unexpectedly donated a big lunch that day so we were going to prepare a light meal of sandwiches instead. And she laughed when she told me one of the resident grandmothers had specifically requested "fried bologna."
"You know, when you're away from home for months at a time, sometimes you just miss the simple things," Wilma told me. "So tonight, we're going to give grandmother what she wants and fry up some bologna!"
We kidded about cooking our "steaks made to order" and asked each person if they preferred medium, medium-well, or well-done. Well-done bologna was the much preferred crowd favorite!
The more Mrs. Wilma and I talked, the more we uncovered of each other's stories. I learned she had once been a resident of the house herself, more than 20 years ago, and her heart had never left. When I asked where she was from, I was shocked to learn she was from the same small neck of the woods as me! She even knew my parents and my grandmother. I couldn't believe it.
After all the turkey had been rolled and the bologna had been fried, I sat down to chat with a couple of the residents -- two beautiful, bald-headed 11-year-old girls. One of them had just returned from meeting Blake Shelton in Las Vegas for her "Make a Wish" trip. She could barely contain her excitement when she told me how "AWESOME" it was. She had been away from home and in the Ronald McDonald House for nine months and was hoping to go home, she told me, within the month.
The other 11-year-old told me, after asking her mother for confirmation, she had been in the house for just five weeks. She appeared slightly less comfortable than her bubbly new best friend. Perhaps she was still adjusting to the idea of her "new home" or her diagnosis... or perhaps she was in pain. Yet she had a sparkle in her eye that let me know she had hope. It lit up especially when she spoke of her dog, Mitzi, and going back home to see her.
I hadn't been sure what to expect before my visit to the house. It came in the middle of a busy, rushed week and honestly, I wasn't looking forward to the hour drive there. But it turned out to be just what I needed -- a new window into the Kingdom of God. When I watched one family, two parents and a teenage daughter, hold hands around their meal and their uncertain future and pray, I felt God's presence. I prayed on the way home God would hear their prayers and meet their needs. Their boldness spoke to me.
Mrs. Wilma asked me to please stay involved with the house, and I promised her I would. They are always in need of supper club volunteers, as well as people to orchestrate activities and entertainment. I hope to bring back some friends and church members next time, and I look forward to soon visiting the families in the brand new Ronald McDonald House.
It is very easy to feel discontent with our lives. We want nicer things, more free time, better behaved kids. But serving people with circumstances like these is humbling and refocuses our perspective. I am better for having visited and thankful God orchestrated the experience.