Even after a decade of dreaming, the end result of Toby Keith's quest to build a home-away-from-home for Oklahoma families fighting pediatric cancer exceeded his lofty imaginings.
“This was a dream. This was a need that Oklahoma needed. This is 10 times bigger than I could have ever imagined. I would have been happy with 15 or 16 rooms and a kitchen with soup and sandwiches, maybe, and a shuttle that could take people in and out and take care of these kids and their families,” the country music superstar said at Thursday's grand opening ceremony for the Toby Keith Foundation's OK Kids Korral.
“This is the Ritz Carlton meets Disney World,” he added, with a laugh. “I'd have been happy with Chuck E. Cheese and Motel 6.”
The 25,000-square-foot OK Kids Korral, which was modeled after an upscale ski lodge, sits at the south end of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
The $9 million building, which Keith said came in under budget, was designed to house pediatric cancer patients and their families seeking care at The Children's Hospital at OU Medical Center and other nearby facilities. It features 12 overnight suites, four day rooms, a gourmet kitchen, spacious dining hall, Route 66-themed indoor playroom, family resource center and more.
“It's off the hook, it's amazing. It's exceeded my dreams and imagination and expectations tenfold and I'm completely blown away,” Keith told The Oklahoman.
Building the OK Kids Korral has been a personal mission for the singer since Ally Webb, the 2-year-old daughter of his former bandmate Scott Webb, succumbed to cancer in 2003.
“I've seen it firsthand and it's very devastating to have to lose half of your income while one parent tends to the sick kid and the other one has to work and your bills are double and triple. And the magnitude of all that is astronomical. We hope to ease and facilitate as much as possible … and I thought this home was a perfect fit because we had nothing here like it,” Keith told the crowd of about 250 people who attended Thursday's ribbon cutting.
When it came time for the ribbon to be snipped, Keith helped hold the crimson strand while former pediatric cancer patient Elijah Fowler wielded the oversized scissors.
“The friends we met when we stayed in a place very similar to this one in New York City became like family to us,” said Elijah's father, Tim Fowler, who works for The Master's Craft Flooring Company, which donated wood and laminate flooring for the lodge. “Sharing in each other's journey helped us to know we are not alone in ours. The OK Kids Korral will be this kind of a place where lasting friendships are forged during the darkest days. This will be a place of hope.”
A small but plush movie theater doubles as a tornado shelter, stained glass double doors open into a reflection room, and the outdoor playground boasts an oil derrick swing set, covered wagon slide and red barn big toy.
“Not every groundbreaking turns into a ribbon cutting. But this one has,” said Mayor Mick Cornett. “As I drove up, I was reminded of the care and the level of design that went into this facility. And it's a reminder of what this generation of Oklahomans have done for … the level of expectation in the projects we build.”
The lodge even includes a $1 million neutropenic wing designed to house children with weakened immune systems.
“The neutropenic wing is probably something that really sets this facility apart from anything else that's in the country,” said Armando Rosell, chairman of the Toby Keith Foundation advisory board. “We wanted to build a top-shelf facility … and it's all so far away from sterile. We want to promote feelings of home.”
Now that the ribbon has been cut, Toby Keith Foundation Executive Director Juliet Nees-Bright said the focus turns to completing inspections and obtaining the necessary hotel license.
The foundation received its first two referrals Wednesday, she said, and expects to welcome those families in 10 to 14 days.
Keith said he hopes the fulfillment of his dream will ease the burden of the families who enter.
“Every wall, every corner, it's been built with love and you can tell that God is ever-present,” he said.