A teen center, Veteran’s job fair, connecting area youth with senior citizens and building a baseball field for children with disabilities were the four presentations made Monday (May 4) by University of Arkansas at Fort Smith students in the community leadership program.
Rusty Myers, who is retired from the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District, and Fort Smith businessman Fred Williams served as professors for the spring class. The four presentations were made in front of about 35 regional business and civic leaders and UAFS faculty. Each group had 10 minutes to present.
Myers said the class has “no tests, no textbook and no lectures.” He said the real challenge is that the students are challenged to address a community need in the semester period, when in reality such change “can be a matter of years.”
“It’s (the class) really centered around the students really driving themselves,” Myers said. “Our only mandate is that they move the needle on an issue.”
The students were tasked to identify a problem, develop a strategic plan to address the problem, and then engage the plan.
Williams praised the students after the presentations, saying they are “outstanding young leaders.”
“If you notice, they were all thinking of others,” Williams said of the four groups and their projects.
THE BRIDGE OF GENERATIONS
Zac Houston, Jacob James, Josh James and Michael Mars worked on a project to reconnect area senior citizens with the youth community. Houston said too often in America senior citizens are shuffled off to institutions. He said the problem with this is that young people are walled off from senior citizens and their years of experience and wisdom.
After a few early miscues, the group connected with Jim Medley, president of Fort Smith-based Area Agency on Aging. Houston said Medley met with the group for three hours and “helped make connections possible” to reach their goal.
The plan now is to connect those who use the agency’s senior citizen centers with UAFS students. Some of the ideas include having UAFS students participate with senior citizens in many of the center’s weekly activities. To sustain the program, Houston said the UAFS Student Activities Office will coordinate with Area Agency on Aging.
Houston said the partnership can “show the senior population that we’re here, we care about you, and you’re an asset to the community.”
BUILDING A BETTER COMMUNITY
The second group have a vision to build a baseball field for children with disabilities, because they believe “every kid deserves to the chance to play baseball, to be part of a team.”
Their research connected with them with Conyers, Ga.-based The Miracle League which now specializes in creating a unique baseball field that caters to the special needs of disabled children.
Students in this group are Kendall Beller, Manila Bounthanthy, Jordan Cordray, Rebecca Dayberry, Austin Duerr, Karina Garcia, Maggie Phrachanpheng, Kevin Tran and Krystal Ziegenbein.
According to the group, there is a The Miracle League field in Little Rock and Springdale. But with more than 3,000 disabled children in the Fort Smith metro area, the group said a field is needed here. They’ve received support from Sebastian County with a location at Ben Geren Regional Park. Other companies have offer free or discounted services, and they’ve reduced the cost from around $450,000 to $150,000.
The UAFS athletic department has committed to providing student-athletes to volunteer at the facility and with the children. However, the group has not yet identified a more full-time individual or group to help manage the the facility. But they are working to seek grants, and hope to see the field become a reality.
Another group believes the region must provide more resources to teens in the area. Not only do activities and programs keep teens and pre-teens out of trouble, but they also help nurture young minds and hopefully create future leaders, the group noted.
Group members are Dawn Birth, Dirk Diment, Jordan Erz, Kevin Mirzaei, Leneé Nastav, and Ngan Tran.
The group partnered with the Fort Smith Boys & Girls Club because they believe an active teen center – partially modeled after the Jones Center in Springdale – would help area youth gain “critical skills for work, college and beyond.” Such a center, the group said, would help counter the challenges of teen pregnancy, substance abuse, teen depression and too many teens unsupervised at home.
Activities and programs at the proposed center could include learning new language, self defense, financial management, cooking, and “strategic” games like chess and backgammon. A poll of 87 area teenagers showed that 73 said such a center “would benefit their life.”
It’s an aggressive plan, and the group laid out four phases – to include evaluation, funding and sustainability – to make the project happen.
VETERAN’S RESOURCE AND JOB FAIR
UAFS students Mark Couch, Thomas Marrazzo and David Payton believe more can be done in the area to connect veterans with housing and employment resources.
There are more than 10,175 veterans living in Sebastian County. But the more interesting number, according to this group, is that 25% of area homeless are veterans. To address that percentage, the group decided to learn what resources were available. They found many groups offering services, but there was not an event or avenue to bring the resources, employers and veterans together at one time and one place.
After spending several weeks calling hundreds of area businesses and organizations, this group launched the Veteran’s Job & Resource Fair which will be held May 20 in the Reynolds Room at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. To date, 21 area companies and five veteran service groups have signed up to attend. First National Bank of Fort Smith is providing lunch, and Arvest Bank is providing nice bags in which vets may carry materials.
Marrazzo said part of the group’s goal is to “promote Fort Smith as a city that cares about its vets.”
The Student Veterans Organization at UAFS will help sustain the fair in future years.