Six years ago, Beth Alessio’s son, then 4 years old, spent two separate occasions in the hospital. The first time was for a dog bite that became infected.
“He was bitten on his face and was hospitalized for four days,” Alessio said. “Four months later he contracted E. coli. He was really sick. … That time he was in the hospital for five days. But it gave me a glimpse of what we do, even though I can respectfully say I haven’t experienced what our families have experienced. They’re dealing with life and death on a daily basis.”
Alessio is executive director at Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern Colorado. During her son’s hospitalization, she stayed in a family room funded by her nonprofit so she wouldn’t have to leave hospital grounds when not by her child’s side.
Alessio has led the local nonprofit for 17 years, and this year marks one of the most active of her tenure. That’s mostly thanks to a capital campaign and the recent groundbreaking for a new Ronald McDonald House in northern Colorado Springs. The facility is expected to open alongside Children’s Hospital Colorado, Colorado Springs during the first half of next year.
This week Alessio spoke with the Journal about the challenges of fundraising in a sea of nonprofits and ensuring compassionate services grow alongside the region’s population.
Are you from the Springs?
I’m from Iowa but I’ve grown up here since fifth grade. I moved here because I had asthma and the doctors said if I ever wanted to get better, I’d have to move to higher elevation. I graduated from Air Academy [High School], went to Metro State in Denver for my bachelor’s in criminal justice and got my master’s in education from the University of Phoenix.
Did you use your criminal justice degree?
I worked with troubled youth for quite a few years. When I left that work I was executive director of a place called Workout Ltd. If you know [the nonprofit] Chins Up [Foundation], it was like a sister agency.
Right after my undergrad, I came back to Colorado Springs and worked in a group home. I did about 15 years working in criminal justice with troubled youth.
During my time at Workout Ltd. … we started the first restorative justice program in Colorado. I thought my next step would be in education and counseling but I never made it there. I started to feel burnout after a while and thought that wasn’t healthy for any organization — if the leader’s burnt out. So I started looking around and the Ronald McDonald House here was looking for an executive director. I’ve been here 17 years now.
What are your responsibilities?
As a small nonprofit, my responsibilities are large and diverse, but I pretty much oversee the growth of the organization and make sure we’re a well-oiled machine, that our operations are solid and we’re meeting our mission in diverse ways. We don’t duplicate services. We look at what’s happening in the community and how we can meet that need. And the Ronald McDonald House itself is just one of the programs of Ronald McDonald House Charities.
We have our Ronald McDonald House, which has been around 31 years and we’re about to make a big leap into a new building. We also have family rooms in different hospitals. Those are more for local families. We have overnight rooms as well, so families don’t need to leave the hospital. They can do their laundry, take a shower, rest, eat non-hospital food. They have a place of their own within the hospital walls and are able to walk back to a hospitalized child. It’s a really tough thing for a family to leave a hospital knowing their kid is in there alone.
We also operated a Care Mobile program that we’re revamping right now. We’re looking for partners to take the Care Mobile around southern Colorado. It takes medical and dental services to people who can’t make it to the doctor. A prime example is Cripple Creek. If the medical unit didn’t go up there, some people wouldn’t ever see a doctor for checkups.
Right now my primary focus is raising $10 million for the new Ronald McDonald House so we can open in conjunction with Children’s Hospital in April 2019.
What’s the scope of Ronald McDonald House Charities?
It’s international, with 365 chapters worldwide. There are more houses than that. … Our house was opened in 1987 as the 101st. Our new facility will be 25,000 square feet, compared to the 6,000 square feet we have now. We currently have 11 beds and the new house will have 20 with the option to expand another 10 beds, at least. The new house is much different. We created every inch along with RTA Architects with families in mind. The house we have currently is on Logan Street and is an old Victorian. We made the house work for us but this one will be created with every intention of best serving the families. It’s all within walking distance of [Children’s Hospital’s new facility]. One thing we did specifically is, the vast majority of the rooms will face west so parents can see the hospital. Just psychologically, for a family that has to leave their child in the hospital to be able to look out the window and see the hospital right there, they’re that close, is such a big deal.
We’ll also have a teen room for those 12 and older, a small play room for kids and a family room in between. We’ll have kitchens and community spaces and a giant backyard that Timberline Landscaping is creating for us.
How do you meet fundraising challenges?
We do a lot of fundraising here and we get a lot of in-kind donations. Tyvek wrapping, for instance, has donated to Ronald McDonald Charities Global, which helps create partnerships for the overall expenses of building the house. It helps to reduce the cost, although cold hard cash we have to get on our own. …
To raise funds, we’ve been doing house parties. We go to the homes of supporters and they invite friends who may want to get behind [our nonprofit]. … We have seven planned right now. We’ll do a big online campaign that launches with our Radiothon with [KATC-FM] in November. And we can’t announce the name yet but we have a great furniture partner that looks like they’ll furnish the entire house for us.
Colarelli [Construction Inc.] is helping us with subcontractors, which are happy to get involved because they just want to be able to say they helped build the Ronald McDonald House.
So we need to raise $8.5 million for the building and land. The remainder is because we’re expanding so much — that money will help with our operational costs.
What will the new house mean for medical tourism?
We will see that much more when we move. Right now we’re tucked into a neighborhood. We’ll be moving near a Target, Lowe’s, Walgreens, King Soopers — everything is right around there. … Medical tourism should be more prominent at the new location.
How do you compete in a city with so many nonprofits?
We purposely don’t duplicate services. I feel like every nonprofit has a niche and they know what they’re doing and they do it well. I believe in partnerships with nonprofits to figure out how to best serve families and children together. But our cornerstone programs — you can’t find them in the community for children. And we’re serving northern New Mexico, western Kansas and, with Children’s expanding, we’re seeing Texans now. …
I also think it’s important to understand that our chapter of Ronald McDonald Charities, like every chapter in the world — we’re dependent on the community for funding. McDonalds helps out in regards to helping open houses, but of the big pie, that’s one piece. Ninety percent [of funding] comes from our community. Because of the name, people are confused and think McDonald’s operates this fully. They’re great partners, but we need the community to survive.
Any other challenges?
When we do fundraisers and seek auction items from local businesses, they get hit up so much. We tell them, ‘We’d like an auction item but we don’t want it to be huge because we want people to come in and take advantage and get to know you and give back to you. Let’s get people in your doors and make this beneficial to you rather than us just seeking a donation.’ We try to ask how we can help each other and promote them while they’re helping us.
I think fundraising is every nonprofit’s challenge. If we didn’t have to fundraise, life would be glorious and we could really focus and hone in on services alone, but that’s the nature of the beast.