It’s been said that friends are the family you choose for yourself.
For Clark Ellison, that means his family tree is adding a lot more branches.
“We’ve had so many people reach out and say, ‘I want to do whatever I can to help,’” said Ellison, regional vice president of Mercy Health Foundation, which provides philanthropic support for Mercy Hospital in Rogers, Arkansas. “It’s been wonderful to see the outpouring of what people can do. And everybody can do something.”
Jo Vaught is doing her part. She met Ellison through a social media page connecting people in Northwest Arkansas with ways to serve during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Mister Rogers said, ‘Look for the helpers,’” Vaught recalled. “But sometimes, you have to be the helper.”
The pandemic hasn’t been kind to JM Designs, Vaught’s wedding and large event floral design studio. The outbreak occurred just as she was preparing for her busiest season.
“My business vaporized in 24 hours,” she said. “The day after the mandate not allowing more than 10 people to gather was announced, every event I had on the books was canceled.”
Feeling anxious and with time on her hands, Vaught sprung into action. “It was about staying busy and feeling like I had a purpose.”
That purpose? Using her artistic talents to support frontline workers through the beauty of flowers. A friend with a 14-acre farm agreed to donate the flowers. Each day, Vaught drove to the farm, spending up to 14 hours harvesting and arranging tulips, daffodils, peonies, delphiniums and more.
“I would leave each morning like I had a job to do,” said Vaught. Turns out, it was a big job.
Vaught created 500 bouquets for Mercy professionals, fire and police departments, nursing home residents, and even strangers who she sensed needed a lift. The barista who made her coffee? A bouquet, handed over through the drive-through window, was part of her thanks.
Vaught isn’t alone in supporting Ellison and Mercy. Regions Bank is part of the family tree, too. Actually, it’s been that way for years.
In the most recent example, Regions provided $15,000 to go toward an air purification system for a unit of hospital rooms treating coronavirus patients. The system will be used post-pandemic for cancer patients and people with other conditions in which air purification is especially critical.
“We were committed to making a donation that would provide meaningful, lasting benefit,” said Jerry Vest, market executive for Regions Bank in Rogers. “This is a gift for the present and for the future.”
Regions has a long history with Mercy through its community partnership, which enlists students from Rogers and Heritage High Schools in the foundation’s annual Charity Ball fundraiser.
Vest recalls the fundraiser’s earliest days.
“We had a group of volunteers that hung crepe paper and balloons from the ceiling,” said Vest. “Clark has been instrumental in growing this to an event hosting nearly 2,000 people. And he’s done it in a selfless, humble way where he’s never at the forefront.”
Mercy Health Foundation is grateful for those who’ve stepped up in recent months. Other new family members include a chef and restaurant group that prepared meals for the hospital’s health care heroes. An art teacher and her students from St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School have created drawings to thank hospital workers for caring for patients.
“The students and I were so happy that we were able to contribute in a way to brighten the day of the doctors, nurses and staff,” said the teacher, Heather Kordsmeier.
The extended family is comforting for Ellison, especially after Mercy had to cancel its gala and all remaining events for 2020. It was something Ellison never imagined, but he knew it was the right decision.
“We need to be the leaders in social distancing and taking the precautions we should all be doing,” said Ellison. “This is about us being a role model in the community.”
Ellison realizes there are people making far more difficult decisions – like the families of Mercy patients. These are people he also considers his extended family.
“The restrictions on families visiting have been very hard,” said Ellison. “Dropping a family member off at the front door for heart surgery…” Ellison pauses to collect himself around the emotion of the experience. “It’s tough.”
Ellison is grateful to Mercy medical professionals for going above and beyond to keep communication open with relatives.
“Our team members are taking more time during face-to-face interactions with patients and engaging in a lot of extra communication with their families,” said Ellison. “They’re taking time to understand what’s going on for everyone.”
2020 hasn’t gone the way anyone wanted. But if Northwest Arkansas, and the rest of the world, are going to tackle today’s challenges, at least people are uniting to support their neighbors. Ellison wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I try to put myself in other people’s shoes,” he said. “We’re trying to help navigate whatever their needs are.”
Jo Vaught sees it the same way.
“I want to be proud of what I did with the time I was given,” she said, adding that Ellison has provided inspiration that’s benefiting many people. “Clark is all the things you want someone to be in his role. He works with so many people, but he makes you feel like you’re the only one. He’s that gift to everyone. You just want to give him a hug.”
Because when times are difficult, that’s exactly what families do.