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New McDonald House will supersize comfort

By Bobby Ampezzan

This article was published August 3, 2014 at 3:04 a.m.

Five years ago the bottom fell out on giving for a lot of charities. For the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Arkansas, the budget that year was just $650,000. This year's budget is about $1.1 million. Quite a rebound!

You see a similar renewed optimism with regards to the plans for the new Ronald McDonald House on the corner of 10th Street and Martin Luther King Drive at Arkansas Children's Hospital.

The Ronald McDonald houses are part of a global charity that offers lodging and fills (some) food needs for families with sick kids in the hospital. In Little Rock, they don't have to be Children's Hospital patients, but nearly all are. The hospital is leasing the half-city-block lot to the charity for 99 years at a dollar a year, "with the option to renew," says Katie Kirkpatrick Choate, the new executive director, who replaced Karen Erren. The hospital's also planning to buy the existing lot and structure at 10th and Wolfe streets for about $1 million.

How's the column going so far? Only sorta interesting? Agreed.

Inside Kirkpatrick Choate's office in the current House is a balsa wood rendering by Wittenberg, Deloney & Davidson that's beautiful. The model itself is beautiful -- who does these things? The architects? Some in-house crafter? -- and so is the concept for the new House.

The rooms in the current place look like a cross between a low-budget motor lodge and a shelter for foster kids. The kitchen is small and fully enclosed; boil a pot of water and the place heats up like a Russian bathhouse, I'm told. The dining room is about as happy and inviting as a game of chess with the Ghost of Christmas Future.

The new House is a building. It could be a downsized Embassy Suites. The entrance has a lobby and a circle drive -- OK, quarter circle. It's five floors and the roof has lines to it, design elements. Most of the new rooms are suites; the plush queen beds have duvet coverings and decorative pillows and sit high off the ground like a Tempur-Pedic.

"We're not building a luxury hotel by any means," Kirkpatrick Choate told me last week. "The artists are very good on those drawings."

Still, the Ronald McDonald House is on the short end of a $7 million capital campaign for an $8 million new facility. The project is separated into two phases so far. The first will build a complete facility -- community rooms, administrative offices, utility spaces -- and 32 family rooms. (The current House has 28 rooms for family.) Phase II would build out living spaces for another 34 families.

Kirkpatrick Choate and her immediate predecessor, Karen Erren (who, it should be said, shepherded the early planning and the first half of the campaign), have both said that "Phase I will address quality," while Phase II builds out quantity.

Charities are curious enterprises. For-profits can speculate; they can overextend their liabilities; they need only ask, "What's the most I can get for this money?" Nonprofits must consider public image, appear "prudent" and, to a great degree, spurn luxury.

Ronald McDonald Houses are curiouser still. There's no mandate to serve those in need. What I mean is, a wealthy family may choose the Ronald McDonald House for sheer convenience (it's across the street from the campus).

"We're certainly not building luxury, but my goal is to meet a very basic need. The need is, a place to sleep, some food to eat, and some comfort," says Kirkpatrick Choate. "Before I came on, they did a lot of surveys and focus groups. They interviewed families that are staying here and families that stayed here 10 years ago about what they want. Those [respondents] said, 'We want a big bed as opposed to two littler beds because this is the hardest time in our lives, and we need to draw comfort from each other, not be across the room from each other.'

"Everybody deserves a nice, clean place to sleep."

So she, like Erren before her, has determined to bring the "nice." The staff mounted their own contribution drive for the capital campaign, which has come in at $24,000 -- "Of all people, they know how important it is we take care of these folks."

The residents have to keep it "clean." As they do today, residents will have access to a vacuum cleaner and cleaning supplies and are expected to keep their rooms the way they found them. "We want their buy-in," she says.

Incidentally, the biggest contributor hasn't been the hospital or the global Ronald McDonald House charity but the central Arkansas co-op of 84 McDonald's restaurants. They have pooled $1 million. Individual franchisees have pledged money, too.

Groundbreaking isn't expected for another year. Moving day isn't until November 2016.

Fleetwood Max

For as long as there's been High Profile there have been haters. In the winter of 2013 I received a fairly nasty piece of mail. It was a photo torn roughly from our section. A single person pictured therein was circled with an unsteady hand in red ink. "This woman is overexposed!" wrote the anonymous correspondent. The whole epistle had a vaguely Mark David Chapman air about it, but whatever.

So I had to laugh earlier last month when I saw Rick Fleetwood, member of multiple charity boards, pictured not in revelry raiment but mesh shorts and sneakers for a Clubhaus Fitness advertisement.

By day Fleetwood is CEO of Snell Prosthetic and Orthotic Laboratory, but by night -- and by golly -- he is a fundraiser bon vivant and frequent honoree at benefits (just this year he was, along with Virgil Miller, Just Communities of Arkansas' 51st Humanitarian Award winner; just last weekend in Fayetteville he was given the Michael Donald Carver Legacy Award from the Arkansas Support Network).

If Fleetwood is pictured in these pages plenty it's because he goes to more good-will galas than anyone in central Arkansas. Yes, more than Gov. Mike Beebe, and that dude turns out a lot.

All this is to say I learned a couple of weeks ago that Fleetwood will again be an honoree, this time as the state's Association for Fundraising Professionals' Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser at its Nov. 12 luncheon. This is a particularly nice recognition for someone like Fleetwood who puts skin in the game. Money is relative, but time and effort are very nearly the same sacrifice for everyone.

Back to the gym: Fleetwood lost 40 pounds in advance of last summer's Dancing With Our Stars for the Arkansas chapter of the Children's Tumor Foundation (which brought in more than $100,000 in its maiden outing). He started looking for a place to keep the weight off.

"Reason I joined [Clubhaus Fitness], I went down and talked with the owner. He has two children with special needs. I thought, 'Well, OK, you got me there.' ... If this [gym] was a dump I would have joined it anyway because you have children with special needs ... but it just so turns out that facility is absolutely fantastic."

The reason the gym liked him for the ad no doubt has something to do with how often we see him in High Profile, but isn't Fleetwood worried about overexposure?

"No, not at all. ... Why should [I] be? You know, I wish everybody was overexposed. It would mean everybody was doing a whole bunch of stuff."

His exposure led to the Clubhaus Fitness ad, but his empathy for the hardship in the owner's life and Fleetwood's heavy volunteering with Easter Seals have them thinking about how the gym might reach out to that community of folks.

"Now [the owner's] talking to Easter Seals to see what he might be able to do to provide services to special needs [people]. Because one of the biggest problems people with disabilities have is being overweight. ... If that's being overexposed, look what's happening."

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