When David Webb comes to help, he is unstoppable
When David Webb comes to help, he is unstoppable
Children worldwide benefit from his creative, determined aid
A certain Rotary International district governor recalls sitting on an airplane bound for the Ukraine and suddenly finding that his somewhat older companion has placed a curious piece of machinery on his lap. “What’s this?” he asked. “Take good care of that. It’s worth about $12,000.”
Calculating that he was not allowed to enter the Ukraine with more than $10,000 worth of goods, Ken Colley became a bit uneasy. Then, as they arrived and began to exit the airplane, the older companion reclaimed his piece of equipment and called for a wheelchair. As the man, David Webb, approached customs, the inspector asked for his passport. David appeared not to hear.
“David, he wants your passport,” Ken told him.
“What did you say?” David replied, cupping his ear.
“He wants your passport,” Ken replied in a louder voice.
“What did you say?” David shouted.
They were through customs in 30 seconds, the machinery unexamined.
David, now 90, still takes a few things to where they are needed – nowadays mostly to the school in Valley of Peace, Belize, where he is building facilities to allow children to complete a high school education.
His working life began at the Nicodemus Tin Shop in Fort Smith and when he was allowed a vacation after a year’s work, he headed out of town. In a one-week trip, he and his wife, Leta Mae, with their 1-year-old son David, made it as far as the Rio Grande Valley and old Mexico. Subsequent trips took them farther afield; north Arkansas, the Rocky Mountains, Miami and all the states of the union – pulling a small camping trailer. Then the Caribbean and South America. England, Europe and the Middle East. Then Russia and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to Siberia to take Bibles.
Vacation travel gave way to missionary trips – first to Leon, Mexico, to build a church and later to Belize under the auspices of the Assembly of God Missions and Placement Services (MAPS) for some short-term construction jobs.
Other MAPS projects took him to the Bahamas, Hawaii, Alaska, Peru and Malaysia. By now, the Fort Smith machine shop operator was a citizen of the world.
It was in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, distributing Bibles that David learned medical supplies could open the door for giving Bibles to children. As a member of the Fort Smith Rotary Club, he knew his Rotary district (parts of Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma) had a medical supplies network. Connecting the dots, he first collected 500 pounds of medications in a gift from Sparks Hospital and persuaded the airline to allow him to check nine pieces of luggage free.
It wasn’t so easy in the Ukraine, where suspicious customs officers from Kiev discovered that some of the medications were out of date and had them returned to the United States.
Next move: a 40-foot container of medical supplies, collected and packed within a few months. Students, teachers and doctors formed a party of 11 Fort Smithians, joined by six interpreters from Kiev, to accompany David to Dnepropetrovsk to oversee the distribution.
“I had learned to always carry extra money” on these missions, David recalled, and when they learned the hospital had no funds to provide immunizations for newborn babies, he and a colleague reached into their pockets. A thousand dollars went a long way.
A friend told him about the needs his stepson was observing while in Belize studying the Mayan ruins. A word to Bill Kirk, Fort Smith Rotary president at the time, and David was in motion. He had been to Belize a few years earlier on a building project and he knew of the needs there.
He had utilized another bit of dollar diplomacy to rescue a mission school that had experienced the theft of all its bed linens and silverware. One hundred dollars wiped away all tears. So, on this occasion, a quick inspection visit led him to start by raising $5,000 through the Rotary Medical Supply Network and the local Rotary Club. This floated a 40-foot ship container with school and hospital supplies.
It wasn’t simple, of course. The container got lost and a local Rotarian studied David’s copy of the shipping papers and determined it had landed farther down the coast. A timely trip to Banana Port, $400 to load the shipment onto a truck sent by another local Rotarian and the container finally reached its destination.
Where to go from there? The director of Latin America Child Care (it helps to know how to identify and find the right people) told David the school’s greatest need was for books. Fort Smith Rotary collected $2,500 from its members for David to take to Belize, accompanied by fellow Rotarians Conaly Bedell, former district governor, and Judge Jim Spears.
After delivering the money, they saw Valley of Peace, a sprawling, primitive community recently settled by refugees from Guatemala and the civil war in El Salvador. Each arrival was given five acres. There was a school, but it was lacking in basic amenities. Eating lunch there under a palm tree, David asked about building a kitchen and lunch area for the students. A sketch on a napkin and the project was under way.
David built the components in his shop in Fort Smith, shipped them to Valley of Peace and went there to supervise the assembly.
Another school, at Orange Walk about 50 miles north of Belize City, recently had been started from scratch by Latin America Child Care. Its director, Stephen Dickerson, told David their most immediate need was for desks. The Fort Smith School District had surplus desks. After disassembly, they fit into a 40-foot container. The students at Orange Walk were sitting on the floor when the desks arrived. Soon, the Fort Smith desks were supplemented by classroom furniture made by students in the school’s shop. The native furniture could be identified because it is made of Belize mahogany.
David feared that the students in Orange Walk, though no longer sitting on the floor, would have a hard time succeeding without computer training. The director agreed, but had no building for that purpose, let alone the computers. David took care of that. Used computers were collected in Fort Smith and money was provided to build the foundation, floor and walls. Volunteers from Fort Smith finished the building, named The Webb Center in honor of David.
On a visit to Valley of Peace in 2007, David mentioned to the school principal that there were several scraps of paper on the grass.
“Well, it’s pretty good for us,” was the reply. Wrong answer. A sudden afternoon deluge occurred and the unfortunate principal was pinned down with David for the duration of the rain, obliged to listen as David explained why “pretty good for us” was not good enough.
Further projects at Valley of Peace included a vocational technology building with the necessary equipment, an open-air pavilion for assemblies, a woodworking shop, a sawmill and, later, a sewing room, computer lab and school nurse’s office. Orange Walk is a high school, but Valley of Peace only provided schooling through the eighth grade. More dreams, more plans.
Now, there is a David Webb High School at the David Webb Christian Academy in Valley of Peace with a Leta Mae Webb home economics building. At 90, David’s trips continue. He doesn’t always have to play deaf.
David Webb at the Webb Center, named in his honor.
This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.