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More than Just a River

A group of volunteers give their time and money for a place that holds a piece of their hearts.

For Marti Olesen, the Buffalo River is more than flowing water slicing through emerald-green trees and limestone, and more than the United State’s first national river. It’s the reason she met the love of her life.

In the spring of 1988, Olesen came to the Buffalo for a float trip with a group of friends, only to lose her dog along the way. At the sight of her grief, her now-husband, then acquaintance, promised to find her furry friend.

“I thought yeah, right, buddy,” Olesen said. Little did she know that he was determined to see her again. He found her dog about a week later, and the rest is history.

Now, Olesen is one of seven volunteer board members of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, a group that aims to “Save the Buffalo River… Again,” according to their website and bumper stickers. They all love the river for their individual reasons and experiences.

The BRWA perceives the C&H Hog Farm as the main threat to the river. The concentrated animal feeding operation sits in close proximity to Big Creek, which is a Buffalo River tributary. In January, C&H applied for a new permit to continue their operations, which was denied by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Equality. The BRWA submitted 100 pages of comment against the permit before the ADEQ made its decision. The group is now an intervener on the side of the ADEQ in C&H’s appeal. If C&H wins the case, the BRWA will appeal that decision.

“We will take it all the way to the Supreme Court if we have to,” said Gordon Watkins, the president of the board of directors of the BRWA.

The Arkansas Farm Bureau, a supporter of C&H Farms, thinks that agriculture and the support of a healthy environment can coexist in the Buffalo River watershed, according to spokesperson Steve Eddington. “The Farm Bureau believes these farmers, and all farmers, should be able to use their land in compliance with the law,” Eddington said. “This farm has been studied and monitored more closely than any farm in the state, and no environmental violations have been found. None.”

The BRWA has a mass of supporters that helps them pay legal fees for lawyers and experts, write letters to decision makers like the governor and legislators and even travel to Little Rock to explain their concern to legislators.

“We’re only working for the Buffalo because the Buffalo couldn’t come lobby for itself,” said Lin Welford, a supporter of the BRWA. Welford has also been instrumental in planning multiple events for the group.

Despite the support of over 2,000 individuals, Watkins has been told time and time again that there is no chance of shutting the C&H Hog Farm down. To him, the long and grueling process is worth the sacrifice of time and money.

“Anybody whose been on the Buffalo, especially the upper section of the Buffalo, is awestruck,” Watkins said. “It only takes one mistake to ruin a special place.”

To Watkins, the river certainly is special. He moved to the Little Buffalo River with his wife in 1977; he decided it was the next best thing to the national park. A couple of years before then, he bought the land and began building his house himself. He farmed and raised two sons on the land. His family developed a summer ritual of spending one week on the Buffalo.

“My sons would spend more time in the water than they did in the boat; they practically swam the length of the Buffalo River,” Watkins said. “It’s in our blood. It’s very special to us and we certainly don’t take it for granted.”

Ginny Masullo, another member of the board of directors, went to the river for refreshment, to get lost in the moment, during her time as a hospice nurse.

“There was a lot of sorrow in my profession. It was a weight that I carried with me,” she said. As soon as she was on the river, she blissfully lost track of time. She became interested in the C&H Hog Farm issue in 2013 and became a member of the board of BRWA in 2015.

“I’m very honored. It’s an amazing group of very dedicated, brilliant people,” Masullo said. The feeling is mutual between Watkins, Olesen and her. Masullo’s main role is organizing events and doing public relations, but the efforts of the BRWA are totally shared by all seven members of the board. Watkins presides over meetings, signs off on documents, and acts as the main spokesperson. Olesen, with a background as a teacher and librarian, plays a large role in education outreach. The board of directors as a whole drafts press releases, letters, and agrees on decisions as a consensus.

“I always knew I loved the river for emotional reasons, but there are so many rational reasons to protect it that feed the emotional ones,” she said. According to Watkins, the river is one of the main attractions to Northwest Arkansas and a huge source of income.

“If the water gets ruined, it hurts everybody,” said Olesen.

For reasons of the heart and of the mind, this group is determined to continue their fight. These are pivotal times for the BRWA with legal proceedings underway, and the organization looks to the future prepared to continue sacrificing their time and money to conserve the waters that mean so much to them.

Making It Together

A story of love and support in Northwest Arkansas’ fashion community.

BENTONVILLE—Sara McGuigan, designer of Love, Zelda, watched a small television screen from backstage as a model struck a ballerina-esque pose at the end of the runway, raising one hand into the air and extending the opposite leg towards the polished, concrete floor. The reveal of McGuigan’s new collection began, starting with a camisole that she hand-sewed. She watched the garments she created come to life and felt elated.

On the runway, upbeat yet soft music, danced through the speakers, making the atmosphere like that of a dream-land. A model glided effortlessly through the middle of fixated spectators. A ballerina bun held her long, brown hair tightly at the back of her head. She wore a blue silk top, with a skinny line of cream-colored french lace cutting down the front middle. A pink skirt, also made of silk, whirled around her legs like snow drifting down and framing the streets of New York.

This show, however, is starkly different from the runways in New York. New York Fashion Week features nationally known designers, and some describe the event as cold and pretentious. 

“We’re aspiring artists. It’s a different vibe for sure,” McGuigan said. She worked tirelessly in the months leading up to the show in order to find authentic french lace, hand-sew the garments, and conduct fittings. The designer sacrificed her social life in the weeks leading up the NWAFW, using every bit of time away from her full-time job as a Walmart merchandiser to create her new collection.

Guidance from veterans of the fashion world helped McGuigan create two collections for her clothing line in less than a year. Through NWAFW, the designer found mentors and friends to assist her in starting Love, Zelda. As a newcomer to the fashion scene, support was essential for McGuigan.

She credited Robin Atkinson, the CEO and Creative Director of the show, as a mentor. Atkinson took over NWAFW in 2016, four years after the organization was established. With a mission to bring the creative fashion community in NWA together, the organization is personable; inquiries sent to the company email go directly to Atkinson or her assistant.

Still, Atkinson said that NWAFW has strong brand recognition in the area, and the means to help aspiring designers, models, or even bloggers trying to break into the fashion world.

“A lot of people need a platform in order to get their shot,” said Madison Briscoe, a social media influencer at this spring’s NWAFW. Her involvement in the event gives her resume an edge when applying to jobs in the fashion worlds of Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York.

A platform is exactly what designers like McGuigan get at the show.

The second collection from Love, Zelda opened the NWAFW’s Friday night show of the Spring 2018 production. The show was not the first time McGuigan participated in NWAFW as a designer. Her premiere collection appeared at the Fall 2017 show in Fayetteville, where it won the Emerging Designer Award; she established her brand the previous July. She did not have to pay to be in the show. None of the designers did; the nonprofit organization that the fashion show benefits, the Arkansas Fashion Forum, pays for the designers’ runway time in order to give them a platform to gain exposure for their work.

“NWAFW gives us the venue. They coordinate the models; they makes things easy for us,” McGuigan said.

McGuigan and Atkinson stood in the middle of the runway at Friday night’s show as audience members with fresh drinks in their hands stood or sat and listened as the two friends traded off the microphone to speak on NWAFW. Light beams cascaded from two rows of lamps on the ceiling to illuminate the women’s faces, both radiating with a smile. Atkinson opened the speech up, noting her elation over the sold-out tickets and completely filled seats, and handed it over to McGuigan.

“To think about how far I’ve come, it’s really because of this community that fashion week has built,” McGuigan told the crowd.

The connections and services from the Spring 2017 show accelerated the designer’s process of establishing her brand by about two years, Mcguigan guessed. She volunteered at the show last spring and was inspired by the end of the experience. Atkinson, impressed by McGuigan’s work for the show, asked her to join the team as a designer liaison. The artist declined, explaining her desire to form the idea that teemed at the forefront of her mind: Love, Zelda.

“I immediately knew that if she could pull it off, if she could get it manufactured, it would be wonderful,” Atkinson said. The creative director recommended the next steps in building a clothing line to McGuigan. If the garments of Love, Zelda were made, Atkinson would promote them and get them on the runway, and she would not make that kind of commitment to just anybody.

NWAFW’s leader has a refined taste for art. She worked as an art curator in New Orleans and New York before returning to her home in NWA. Bringing together clothing designers for a fashion show is the same creative process as curating paintings and sculptures for a museum, according to Atkinson.

“You meet a designer and you treat them like an artist because they are,” she said. 

Atkinson takes a vested interest in building the diverse, creative community of designers in NWA. She meets anyone who wants to get involved in the show because she knows that NWAFW is an opportunity for artists to get a chance to gain exposure and recognition. At the fashion show, Atkinson’s efforts were realized; there are designs ranging from red ball gowns to full body suits made completely of yarn to black, leather two-piece sets.

“I like being involved in something that brings creativity and breaks stereotypes,” Briscoe said.

Creativity long had a place in McGuigan’s life, but opportunity poured in once she got involved in NWAFW.

The designer, who continues to work full-time in a corporate job, looks forward with hope, new ideas, and the support of those around her for Love, Zelda. Atkinson, the designer’s main facilitator, sees the brand’s future as full of promise.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a couple years, you see Love, Zelda on the racks at Dillard’s,” Atkinson said. If selling designs in a large department store is the designer’s moon, NWAFW is the launchpad. 

Absence and Need in the Foster Care System

A severe need for foster families persists in the Arkansas foster care system. 

By: Emily Foster

Mike Ford knew that love was a risk. He understood why families did not want to enter into the foster care system, with the long hours of training, the court dates, and a new child. Nevertheless, he and his wife decided to care for a foster son even though they already had three kids of their own. Love was the driving force in their decision to foster.

“The very definition of wanting to provide a safe home and to love means you put yourself at risk to be hurt; that’s the whole point,” Ford said.

There is a great need for more people like the Fords. Thousands of children in Arkansas are currently in the foster care system without a traditional home to live in because of the severe lack of families willing to open their homes to these kids.

According to Marci Manley of the Department of Human Services, there are just over 4,800 children in the foster care system as of this March, but there are only about 1,300 family homes available, according to The Call, an agency that partners with the state to train foster parents. In Northwest Arkansas, there are 619 children in need of a foster home, but only 192 families ready and able to take care of them. The gap between the number of children in need and homes available has never been greater, according to Kelly Krout, who trains foster parents for The Call.

“There are just so many kids in the system that it far outweighs the families willing to do it,” said Shannon Puryear, a mother who fostered a child for 10 months, and now works with a group home for children in the system in Jonesboro.

If a child cannot be placed with a foster family, they will go to a group home with eight to ten other kids, congregate care settings (which are usually for youth with behavioral issues), or emergency shelters, according to Manley. They are often ripped from their communities and schools in order to go somewhere that has space for them. Sibling groups can be separated if there is not enough room for them all in one place.

“Their parents are already taken away from them–their family, their home, everything they know–and now their sisters and brothers are taken away from them,” Ford said. Removal from community, detachment from siblings, and instability causes many kids in the foster care system to have an inability to trust others and function in a family setting, according to Krout. The long-term effects can include an increased difficulty to break the cycle of family disfunction.

A principal deterrent that keeps people from becoming foster parents, besides a complete unawareness of the desperate need within the system, is fear and concern for their biological children. Ford learned in training that kids ages six and up who were abused in the past, from verbal to sexual abuse, can develop a pattern of mimicking this harmful behavior towards younger children.

“That’s just how they have to protect themselves, how they survive,” Ford said. This fear, though understandable for a loving parent, is the reason older kids and youth with a difficult and painful past can be so much harder to place, whether or not they actually have behavioral issues. Only 46.8 percent of kids ages six and up are currently placed with foster families. This issue is especially harsh for teenage boys, Krout said. Many end up in disciplinary and counseling-based group homes that they do not actually need to be in.

Another main factor about the system that discourages people from becoming foster parents is the time commitment and high expectations. Mounds of paperwork, 30 hours of training, and in-home inspections await anyone who wants to foster. Many agree this preliminary stage is understandable, but that does not make it any easier on a person’s schedule. Ford said that this process weeds people out, but maybe that’s a good thing.

Krout said that she would rather scare participants off than have them take in a child, only to decide they are not cut out for it.

The experience of working with the foster care system in order to care for a child can burn a lot of families out very fast. Puryear remembered her experience as a foster mom as frustrating at times, citing the continual the weekly in-home inspections. The Fords receive constant texts about different children needing a placement, even though, according to DHS regulations, they are technically maxed-out of space in their house.

Court dates, inspections, additional training and other time requirements make being a foster parent much more difficult than simply caring for a new addition to the family, though that is not simple at all.

“In reality, I could just call and say, ‘That’s enough; come get this kid now.’ And people do that,” Krout said.

Though there is a deficiency in families able and willing to welcome foster children into their homes, 83 percent of kids and youth in the Arkansas foster care system were placed in family-like settings as of February 2018. That percentage includes children placed in group homes and other settings similar to them.

The money from Governor Hutchison’s budget increase for the foster care system goes to better pay for caseworkers and increased hiring, according to the Arkansas Times. The average caseload is now 22.8 per caseworker (down from 28.7 this time last year), which allows Arkansas’ caseworkers to focus on placing kids in good and appropriate homes.

“The value that every child deserves a family guides placement decisions,” said Manley.

The need for families to participate in the foster care system continues. Luckily, people like the Fords, Kelly Krout, and Shannon Puryear realize the importance of caring for children and youth in foster care.

Ford often has to remind himself that work and time is worth it, despite the many problems. “Don’t let the brokenness of the system stop reminding you of the purpose,” Ford said.

 

 

 

 

A Hometown Hero

“Good job; you are so awesome, so awesome,” said Ami Cleveland, a 38-year-old retired bank accountant, to a student in her preschool classroom.

The two-year-old, curly-haired girl sat in a miniature yellow chair, stringing yarn through the punched-in holes of a pink, laminated heart. The rest of her classmates became distracted and wandered away from the craft. Cleveland, dressed in camouflage pants and rose gold sneakers, spoke gentle words of encouragement that cut through the raised voices of six other toddlers.

Cleveland teaches at Wet Cement, a preschool run by Potter’s House, which is a Christian organization that serves lower to working class families in the Fayetteville area. She is a spunky, gregarious woman who grew up in the same community she now serves. Cleveland wears many hats in the organization; on top of being a teacher, she is the only African American member of the Potter’s House board and the director of a three-month-old adult women’s program. She has a passion for this new project in particular.

The Potter’s House board envisioned a ministry that would help the mothers of children enrolled in different Potter’s House courses, and Cleveland executed it as a mentor-mentee program. She spends a lot of time giving advice to mentors, who come from completely different backgrounds than the women they’re advising. Many of the mentees are single, working mothers who belong to the larger 24.9 percent of Fayetteville’s citizens with low incomes.

As director of the new program, Cleveland coordinates Bible studies, church visits, craft nights, and retreats for the women. She finds resources that could help the mentees with finances and health. She said that her hope is for each of the ladies served by the program to find growth, sustainability and employment. The mentors in her group describe her as a bridge-builder, as she constantly finds ways to bring all the women together, no matter how different they may be.

Cleveland thought it would be a good idea for the mentors and mentees in her ministry to perform a dance at the Potter’s House Christmas event, and she decided to do it with them. She asked her hairdresser to choreograph the number and found someone to cut the music. She organized practice times and encouraged the ladies, most of who had never formally danced before, to step out of their comfort zone.

“When we were done, the amount of camaraderie we felt was just incredible. […] There was a new sense of trust,” said Sally Acosta, one of the mentors in the group. This opened up the women to talk about their struggles, giving Cleveland and the mentors opportunities to help.

Another key role Cleveland plays in Potter’s House is on the board. She is the only African American board member, and some think she gives PH a link to the community.

“She sits on the board and is that voice for the African American population,” said Diane Cooper, the director of Wet Cement. Cleveland said that she loves the freedom she has to share her unique viewpoint in board meetings.

Cleveland’s position in the organization is significant in every area she is present in, according to Cooper. Her family life, professional background as an accountant and work on behalf of low-income families has established her as a role model for the women and children she serves.

Myosha Moore is one the PH moms in Cleveland’s ministry. She is the single mother of a four-year-old girl and the cook at Wet Cement preschool. She grew up in the same area as Cleveland, who used to pick on her in high school. Moore said that now, Cleveland and her are very close and their kids are good friends. She described Cleveland as open-hearted and loving.

“She’s inspired me to just be me,” Moore said. She has always looked up to Cleveland; Moore recalled the director’s basketball skills as a point of inspiration for her.

Cleveland seems to be perfect for the job, but she never thought she would work in ministry. She grew up in Fayetteville, graduated from the University of Arkansas and moved away with her husband, whose job as a college basketball coach led the couple to Alabama and Missouri, where Cleveland worked in the corporate world.

“I had no kids, no nothin’, so I stuck to the job in a bank as an accountant,” Cleveland said. When the couple moved back to Fayetteville, Cleveland was pregnant with twins. For the first few years of being a mother, she stayed home to raise her sons. Once the two started to get older, Cleveland had abundance of free time on her hands, so she decided to get involved in Potter’s House. She volunteered at the preschool, which led to her serving on the board. When the opportunity arose for her to become the “female adult director,” she accepted it with zeal.

The transition from the corporate world to a job in ministry was not seamless. Cleveland said that, with her job at the bank, her work stayed confined to the nine hours spent in her office.

With Potter’s House, Cleveland is always moving and helping families when and where they need her. One night, she may leave her house after dinner to pick up a child from his basketball game because his parents could not make it. The next, Cleveland may answer a phone call from one of the ladies in her program after she already climbed into bed to go to sleep. Despite the change, she feels thankful to be in this position; she said the Lord led her in this direction.

“It’s by His guidance and grace that I’m doing what I’m doing,” said said.

Cleveland had a meeting with the women’s director at Christ Community Church to discuss merging the two ministries. Though her program is new and small, Cleveland envisions expanding her reach beyond the PH mothers, so she can help as many Fayetteville women as possible.