Three years ago, it was just an ambitious dream. But, with the help of a local civic group, the Fulton County Hospital Foundation is finally taking off.
"This is an unusual undertaking for a small community. You usually find hospital foundations in much larger cities where there are more people and businesses to turn to for support," says Foundation Chairman Ken Harper.
Harper admits there were skeptics when a 10 member Board of Directors formed in June of 2007 to begin raising money for a fund to help the Fulton County Hospital purchase equipment and make improvements.
But, according to Harper, the board never doubted it would be successful: "Our board is made up of optimistic people who are determined to do something good for the community. There are few things as important as keeping the hospital strong and supporting other health related activities."
There have already been successes.
The Hospital Foundation has obtained and donated funds to help the hospital buy new computers and new reclining chairs for all in-patient rooms.
As it looks to the future, the foundation also wants to eventually help indigent families with medical bills and to offer scholarships to high school graduates in Fulton, Izard, and Sharp counties for grads who wish to pursue medical training and education.
"My wife, Arlene, had an appointment at the hospital and, while we were there, I saw the Wall of Fame." That is how J.B. Etheridge begins the story of his crusade to help the Hospital Foundation prosper.
The Wall of Fame is one of the foundation's main fundraisers. As supporters make donations, their names are added to plaques that are spreading across a wall of a hospital hallway.
Etheridge explains, "I bought a space on one of the first plaques for me and my wife and got permission to add the Masonic emblem to it. That's when I got the idea of asking Masonic Lodges in the area to also help support the Foundation."
In just six months, Etheridge has convinced 19 Masonic Lodges in our area and beyond to become monetary supporters of the Hospital Foundation.
He has also obtained donations from lodges, businesses, relatives and friends in five other states: Missouri, Washington, Florida, Texas, and Ohio.
"We call J.B. our national sales manager," laughs Harper.
Plaque sponsorships are still rolling in thanks to Etheridge and two fellow Masons he recruited to join his crusade: Ray Matthews of Viola and Kenneth Wagoner of Strawberry..05
"A Mason's duty is to help people in need," says Wagoner. "To help out individually and as a group. The foundation is a good organization for us to work with because, besides the hospital, it supports community projects in Fulton, Sharp and Izard counties."
One example of that was recent foundation donations to Salem, Viola, Cave City and Melbourne High Schools to help fund senior lockdown activities.
So far, Etheridge and his two helpers have raised $7,200 for the foundation by selling Wall of Fame sponsorships.
"We travel 50 to 300 miles a week seeking out Lodges and other Masons that want to help says Ethridge. "We receive no reimbursement for our expenses but we intend to keep going indefinitely because we think this is important."
Thanks to the Masons and other supporters, Harper says the foundation now has "quite a little bit in the bank."
The Hospital Foundation Board wants to keep the momentum going because it hopes to launch its medical education scholarship program next year.
Long established hospital foundations accumulate enough money and invest it wisely enough that interest from investments fund much or most of their good deeds.
The Fulton County Hospital Foundation hopes that will eventually be the case here so that, for example, there will be a perpetual source of funds for the scholarship program.
"We want to encourage high school graduates to learn a medical skill and stay here in the area to practice it," says Harper.
"We have to keep the hospital. Keep it here. It has to remain a critical care hospital and health care in our region must continually improve."
With those goals is mind and supporters like J.B. Ethridge and his fellow Masons, the foundation hopes it is on its way. That careful planning and first small steps are proof it can thrive and help community medical services thrive as well.