For Janell Mason, it's all about family, whether it be her own or the many families she and her staff serve at the Ronald McDonald House of Arkansas in Little Rock, where she is chief executive officer.
Growing up in the Houston area in the 1950s and '60s, she learned the importance of family and community from her parents and neighbors. And despite being an only child, she never lacked for playmates as her neighborhood teemed with fellow baby boomers, who rode their bicycles everywhere and played until dark.
She brings that same spirit of togetherness to her work, or rather, the Ronald McDonald House's extended family, which includes the parents and siblings of critically ill children who are in Little Rock for medical treatment.
"It's an honor," she says, adding that "there is no other place where families can feel more supported and cared for than the Ronald McDonald House."
You might even say her work is a calling, instilled in her by her parents early on.
Being an only child, Mason was especially close to her parents. Although they made her feel special, there was no coddling.
"I was told from day one that I was a gift," she says. "But my mother was of the mindset that as an only child, you had to be more and better. You had to achieve more."
Her mother was the "lion" of the family, Mason says, serving as a homemaker until Mason reached high school when she began teaching nutrition for the local extension service. "She worked in impoverished areas of the city, and it became a true passion for her," Mason says.
Her father, a chemical engineer, was the "lamb" of the family with a soft heart and fun spirit who let her put flower and footprint stickers, popular in the 1960s, on his black Volkswagen.
She was both a tomboy and a proper girl, depending on which parent she was engaging with at the time.
"I did boy things with him and girl things with her," she says. "They always taught me that I could do anything I need to do."
Her parents encouraged her to learn about everything -- even a card game was an opportunity to learn about math, she says. She had a "serious" chemistry set, as opposed to a toy one, and became an expert on insects. "I was so big into science," she says. "I collected insects, and it is a joke among my friends because I finally gave away my insect collection about 12 years ago. But it had moved everywhere with me. And I used to go to schools and give lectures about insects. I wanted to be an entomologist."
Both parents were also volunteers in the community and taught her the importance of serving others.
"My parents were the kind of folks who would give the shirt off their backs, and then some, to make sure whoever needed something had something," she says.
After graduating from high school, Mason attended Southwest Texas State University, now Texas State University, for a year before transferring to Sam Houston State University. After getting a degree in photography and graphic design, she took a job teaching art at a Montessori school near Rice University in Houston. While there, one of the school's families invited her to be an au pair in Paris.
Upon her return to Texas, she had a brief stint as a substitute teacher before her career took a big turn when she became a managed health-care contracting consultant for multi-specialty physician groups in Houston. When the company landed a contract with the Jefferson County Regional Hospital in Pine Bluff, along with local physicians there, they needed someone to oversee the project. "I said, 'gosh,' it would be a great experience to go from the consulting side to the implementation side."
After interviewing in Pine Bluff, she accepted the offer with the idea that she would be there about a year, long enough to get a community-based Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) network off the ground. She and her then 3-year-old son Taylor from her first marriage, packed up and moved to Pine Bluff on Feb. 14, 1987. Instead of a year, she was there for seven.
"We grew that network to a really good size; a good block of business," she says.
In 1994, she was recruited to start the Arkansas Managed Care Organization (AMCO), a managed care network for the Arkansas Medical Society in Little Rock. As a self-proclaimed "start-up girl," the project appealed to her desire to build from the ground up. While some might find such a project daunting, for her it was another opportunity to do something for others.
"I've never really met a challenge," she says. "I don't know if that's from childhood, the way I was brought up or whatever. ... It's always an opportunity. You just have to figure out how to get it done."
While working for AMCO, she met her husband-to-be, Clark Mason, who was a lawyer at a Little Rock law firm. She was introduced by a mutual friend at the Capital Bar and Grill in Little Rock. "I tell people that Clark is the man I had my first date with," she says, adding that they ended up talking for four hours that night. After dating for a year, they married. That was 32 years ago.
A LIFE-CHANGING MOMENT
In 2003, Mason says she "retired" from work because "it got to the point where I was counting vacation days." For the first six months, she "ironed everything" and her house was "immaculate." She would have coffee with friends and work out at the gym. "I don't even know what I was doing, but I was going crazy," she says. "So, Clark bought a Mac for me and put it on the counter in the kitchen, and I would walk over and check email." There would be no email, she says, but she would check again five minutes later.
Things began to look up when her friend Beth Coulson, who served on the board of Our House, a homeless shelter in Little Rock, invited Mason to help hang art for a benefit for the shelter. "And, you know how it's a domino effect, once people know you will say 'yes,'" she says. "So, they asked me to be on the board and that was very special for me."
It also proved to be a lifesaver of sorts. In October 2003, Mason was robbed at gunpoint while getting her nails done at a Little Rock salon. The first robber walked in, asking the clients who owned the red Lexus outside. "I said it was mine and so he walked over and stuck a gun on the back of my head and held it there for probably 15 minutes while they got their money," she recalls. She ended up giving him her keys and handbag. Eventually he turned his focus to another woman, before leaving in her car.
"It was horrible," she says, adding that she suffered from PTSD for a long time after.
Her work at Our House and other nonprofit organizations gave her a new focus, which helped her overcome the trauma of the robbery, she says. In addition to Our House, she volunteered for the CARTI Auxiliary, the Arkansas Arts Center, the Old State House, Sculpture at the River Market, the Miss Arkansas Scholarship Foundation and Arkansas Baptist College, among others. She also became a board member for the Ronald McDonald House where she headed up a $9 million capital campaign to build a new facility to replace the original house. In 2015, near the end of the campaign, she was asked to become CEO of the organization.
The new 32-room house with a family room opened in 2016. In addition to providing a home away from home for families of children being treated at area hospitals, the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas also provides free dental care to children in need through its Care Mobile program.
As CEO, Mason is not only in charge of administration and strategy, she also sees the program in action first-hand as she regularly visits with the families staying at the house.
"You walk in here in the morning and your troubles are left in the car because when you meet these families and hear what they're going through, [it's nice] to know that we are lightening their load thanks to our donors and volunteers," she says. "They make it possible for families to stay here and be together."
Her strong staff is a key to the success of the program.
"I'm inspired by our dedicated team," she says. "They go above and beyond to ensure families have everything they need so they can focus on what matters most -- their sick child."
Their dedication was on full display during the pandemic, Mason says. In March 2020, when the covid-19 national emergency was declared, they could no longer have volunteers come to the house. The volunteers are the ones who provide meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner, each day for the families staying at the house.
"So, staff had to not do their job part of the day so they could cook the meals," Mason says, adding that they also had to do fundraising to buy the food. With help from the World Central Kitchen, they were able to provide the meals not only at the house, but also at their programs at two other local hospitals.
"It really changed our whole fundraising philosophy and methods," she says. "It really taught us a lot."
While Mason has much praise for her staff, they, too, respect her as a leader.
"She's inspirational, and I think she's innovative and creative when managing the team," says Donna Csunyo, programs director for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas. "And she does think outside the box; she has inspired me to think about things in different ways."
David Avery, president of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas, calls Mason "an outstanding leader with a passion for serving families with critically ill children being treated at local hospitals." He adds that Mason "leads by example to ensure the organization serves with empathy and compassion where all are respected and valued."
Her longtime friend, Shelia Vaught, says, "Dedicated is probably the main word I would say about her."
"She has a big heart and is full of love for lots of things, but especially for those kids and the families that stay at the Ronald McDonald House," Vaught adds.
As with previous projects, Mason saw herself only staying a couple of years at the Ronald McDonald House -- one to get the new house open and another to get it established. But, as happened in the past, she found her job isn't finished.
"It's the mission," she says. "My personal philosophy is 'Make today count.' And it is just the honor of knowing that we're making a difference for families and relieving some burden."
Sometimes the mission is difficult as Mason and the staff see the heartache families endure when they lose a child. Other times, there is much joy when children and their families return for checkups and to say thank you to the staff.
"We see those little babies come back for their one-year checkups and they're little fat, chunky things," Mason says, adding that the families and patients often give back. One young man who is in college in Conway stops by to bring muffins baked by his mother when he is town for check-ups.
And then there are children like Anthony from Louisiana. Only 7 years old, he will be returning to Little Rock soon for his 15th surgery. "Anthony's mom texted me today, and she wanted to make sure that Mac, [the house's Golden Doodle therapy dog] was going to be here. They are having football jerseys made for Mac and Anthony with the number 15 for his 15th surgery."
MY FAMILY AND PETS ARE: My husband, Clark Mason, sons -- Taylor DeCastro (and Rebekah, our soon to be daughter-in-law this April 22), Riley Mason, Reid Mason and his wife, Maggie, who have given us two fun-loving grandsons -- Bentley and Beckett (ages 5 and 4); Beau, our 14-year-old English Creme Golden Retriever.
THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE I'VE RECEIVED IN FUNDRAISING: If you don't ask, the answer is always "no." In general -- If you pray, don't worry, and if you worry, don't pray.
MY FAVORITE CHILDHOOD MEMORIES INCLUDE: Putting on my first pair of red cowboy boots (age 3); being crowned Queen of the PeeWee Baseball League -- my escort won a bike, all I got was a crown; playing army with my daddy at McGregor Park.
THE BEST TIME OF DAY FOR ME: I am an early morning and a late-night person.
IF I WERE NOT IN MY CURRENT POSITION, I WOULD HAVE LIKED TO HAVE BEEN A: Volunteer at the welcome desk to greet our families at Ronald McDonald House.
MY STRESS-BUSTERS INCLUDE: Taking Beau for a walk, doing jigsaw and word puzzles and watching romantic comedies.
THE LAST BOOK I READ WAS: "Red Shoes Living" by Lonnie Mayne.
PROUDEST ACCOMPLISHMENT: Being a mom -- the greatest honor in my life.
BEST PART OF THE JOB: Visiting with the families we serve and being present when they share their child's story.
SOMETHING FEW PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT ME: I still have the first pair of cowboy boots I got when I was 3 years old.
I WISH I HAD MORE TIME TO: Travel. Covid got us out of the habit. It is time!
MY FAVORITE MEAL IS: Any meal when our family is all together.
ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Purposeful