There’s a new energy in town.
While Fort Smith has a long history of wonderful, well-established organizations doing their wonderful work, we’ve noticed a marked difference lately, particularly in the past year. We see citizens taking part in their city in new and refreshing ways. People are stepping forward to do something daring and new to help make our city better. We see new people having the guts to step out on that limb regardless of whether it’s ever been stepped out on before, or whether it’s got enough “official” support, or whether it sounds half-crazy to everyone else. People are stepping forward out of their comfort zones to make positive things happen in Fort Smith – new things done by new people with new ideas creating exciting new events ... all of it energizing the city we don’t just live in, but love.
Listing all of the examples of this citizen-engagement phenomenon is impossible, but here are a few of our favorites, the stand-out, people-led events of the past year. Forgive us, please, for all of those not listed; it’s a beautiful problem, having way too many.
Reading to Kids
Bass Reeves Reading Program
Bass Reeves’ story was once almost lost to history, but thanks to books like Art Burton’s Reeves biography, Black Gun, Silver Star, and Vonda Micheaux Nelson’s award-winning illustrated children’s book, Bad News for Outlaws: The Life & Legend of Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, his amazing true Fort Smith story is being told. Volunteer Julie Moncrief took it upon herself to bring Reeves’ story to the Fort Smith schoolchildren in an engaging new way. She brought the book into every fifth- and sixth-grade classroom, with more than 80 volunteers reading Nelson’s book aloud to the class and discussing Reeves’ legend with the students. This feat involving recruiting, training, organizing and then scheduling dozens of readers took a masterful amount of coordination and planning, beautifully done by Moncrief. The readings connected adults and children, our city’s history and its future. The kids loved it. Although Moncrief has moved on to become executive director of the Clayton House and the reading program is not scheduled to be repeated, it has a legacy of its own. Thanks to this unique program, the Fort Smith Public Schools made Bad News for Outlaws a permanent part of the fourth-grade curriculum, ensuring generations of local children will grow up being inspired by this local man who went from slave, to legend, to role model.
Reading to Kids
Bass Reeves Iniative
We’ve been hearing so much about Bass Reeves in this town, it’s easy to forget that wasn’t always the case. It’s taken years of hard work by dedicated volunteers, just ordinary citizens who had a dream of reviving Reeves’ story and creating something to honor him in Fort Smith. During Memorial Day weekend, we will get to celebrate their hardearned results when a 25-foot-high bronze statue of the lawman is installed downtown near Ross Pendergraft Park. It will welcome visitors who cross the Garrison Avenue bridge from the Indian Territory Reeves once served. The figure on a horse will illustrate that Fort Smith honors our Old West heritage, the marshals service, diversity – all of the qualities Reeves’ service embodied – and just plain grit. Without relentless determination, this statue would not have happened. Visit www.deputybassreeves.com to learn more about the Bass Reeves Legacy Initiative and how you can get involved. The group raised more than $325,000 to raise this statue in Fort Smith. Their effort also raised our belief in what we can accomplish when we work hard toward a common vision. The statue, they say, is only Phase 1. We can’t wait to see what they dream up next for our city.
Festival on the Border
A major new music festival in Fort Smith? Really? Yes, really. Perhaps in its first year Festival on the Border is not yet Bonnaroo or Wakarusa. Now that it’s started, though, there’s no telling how this nascent cultural festival will grow. When the Nationwide Tour Fort Smith Classic golf tournament ended in 2010, there were more naysayers about its loss and the city’s major event prospects than we care to remember. Not among them was John Speck, advertising director of the Times Record, who had this gutsy idea that Fort Smith could replace the event by putting together a large music festival to benefit 10 charities, in a few short months. He gathered others from among the Classic’s planners and recruited fresh new volunteers and, by golly, they made it happen. Over four beautiful days in September, people by the tens of thousands enjoyed concerts by Travis Tritt, Dierks Bentley, the Randy Rodgers Band, Hairspray, Boom Kinetic, Andy Grammer, The Fray and even Girl Talk. People came from Fayetteville, Little Rock, Tulsa and who knows where else for the great music and affordable tickets. We lost count of how many people we saw posting photos of these concerts online saying, “I can’t believe this is Fort Smith!” We can. Here’s our thanks to the Festival on the Border team for boosting our city’s self-esteem, doing good and giving us all a great time.
Fort Smith’s Air Show is not new. The 2011 show, however, was bigger than ever, better than ever and still absolutely free. You can count on one finger the number of U.S. cities that put on a free air show of this type, size and quality: just Fort Smith. Seeing 250,000 (!) people from here and all over the nation having a blast as the planes, jets and a 350-mph school bus blasted their engines was a sight you had to see to believe. Two very active organizations, the Fort Chaffee Community Council and the 188th Fighter Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard, oversee its planning. But what’s really exciting is the number of new people who got involved to get this multi-million-dollar event off the ground. From the chateau and advertising sales people and donors who got it funded to the graphics and social media team to the logistics experts to the volunteers selling concessions and parking cars, there was fresh energy and community spirit as high as the skies.
Fort smith air show
Sometimes it’s the small things. Empowered by the democratic connectedness of social media, a new group formed last year on Facebook. Positive People of Fort Smith started as a “secret” group, but it didn’t take long for their self-proclaimed mission, “Create Good News,” to generate some good vibes. The group’s members are of different ages, different incomes, different races, different interests and different backgrounds. Their commonality is a commitment to highlighting the good things in our city and working to make it better. They post good news and brainstorm positive projects everyone could embrace. Sometime in late summer, one member noted that the Sanitation Department had some of the hardest workers in the city, in some of the most thankless jobs. Thankless? Well, that’s an easy fix, the group decided: We’ll thank them. And so they did, starting a mini-movement with a week of members making signs, banners and handmade posters to decorate their trash cans with words of appreciation for the guys who haul away their garbage. The media picked up on it, several schools joined in and there were even accounts of citizens in other cities thanking their own sanitation workers in similar ways. Director of Sanitation Baridi Nkokheli said that in 30 years in the industry he had never seen anything like it and it was a tremendous and needed boost to his department’s morale. Simple, almost free and successful in meaningful ways: That’s what we call very good news, created by ordinary folks who cared.
sanitation department thank-you movement
Perhaps the first example we noted of this new volunteer initiative was in 2009 with the astoundingly collaborative Christmas Honors program to lay holiday wreaths on each of the 12,000 military graves at the Fort Smith National Cemetery. The cemetery is decorated with U.S. flags at Memorial Day and Veterans Day. But Philip Merry was inspired to add a holiday tradition. By its third year, the number of graves to be decorated had grown to almost 13,000. No worries. The number of volunteers grew even faster. If you have not participated, stop by the workshop next December during the single morning when hundreds of volunteers are unpacking, fluffing and hauling thousands of wreaths to honor our servicemen and women. It is an awe-inspiring display of community spirit. Each year, the program gets stronger, thanks to new volunteers all working together, whether they know each other or not. This year, a multi-state robotics competition was being held at the same time at the Fort Smith Convention Center. Organizers reported that the robotics competitors kept going next-door to the Christmas Honors wreath-assembly, first to watch, and then to help out. That’s a perfect example of showing visitors our city at its best and inspiring them to catch our spirit.
We’ve long considered the trolley museum to be one of the hidden gems of Fort Smith. Tourists love it, yet many locals don’t even know it’s there. During a Trolley Museum Volunteer Week, the Positive People of Fort Smith decided to try to make this treasure a lot more relevant to area families. Volunteer Melissa Woodall noticed the museum’s black locomotive engine looked remarkably like the one in the children’s classic book and film, The Polar Express. “Wouldn’t if be neat to have a Polar Express event at the museum?” she asked the group. The two-day event, initially just planned as a reading of the book at the museum, grew beyond anyone’s expectations. Volunteers made dozens and dozens of homemade cookies and gallons of hot cocoa, others pitched in to read the book on a dining car and a trolley. The museum gave free trolley rides and families enjoyed free professionally photographed Santa pictures with prints donated by Bedford Camera & Video. The entire thing was planned online with no formal meetings, no underwriting sponsors and zero budget. More than 1,400 people rode the trolley, almost all of them first-time riders. The event was absolutely free to the community, priceless in its effect. We very much hope and suspect the Polar Express will become a permanent Fort Smith Christmas tradition.
polar express at the fort smith trolley museum