Vilonia, Heber Springs chosen as volunteer communities

By Tammy Keith Published November 21, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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VILONIA — Mayor James Firestone of Vilonia said the city being chosen as Volunteer Community of the Year for the first time “really means a lot,” but he isn’t surprised.

“We just have a tremendous amount of support,” he said.

Vilonia was one of 12 communities chosen to receive the 2013 Arkansas Volunteer Community of the Year Award by the Division of Community Service and Nonprofit Support of the state Department of Human Services.

Firestone, a lifelong resident of Vilonia, said residents of Vilonia, from firefighters to senior citizens, volunteer constantly.

He said the community was chosen for a variety of volunteerism, but a big part of that was work volunteers put in on the Vilonia Museum of Veterans and Military History.

“The Museum Brigade and the volunteers from the veterans association come in and do volunteer work,” Firestone said.

He said he has been to many veterans museums in different cities, and Vilonia’s museum is better than most.

Firestone said he and Linda Hicks, who lives in Conway, brainstormed, and she came up with the veterans-museum idea.

“The city got behind it,” he said.

The museum opened in 2012 in a historical home that was damaged by the 2011 tornado that ripped through Vilonia.

“After the storm, most of the windows were gone, most of the roof; the inside was just shambles,” he said. “I walked in with Linda Hicks, and she said, ‘What do you think?’ with a big smile on her face, and I said, ‘It looks great.’

“It took a lot of work. I’m just amazed at how far we’ve come,” Firestone said.

Hicks volunteers her time as director of the museum, and she said it is supported by a group of about 40 volunteers called the Museum Brigade. Admission is free.

On the museum’s website, Hicks writes in her letter from the director, “The museum volunteers include many who have served — some retired and some active, as well as their spouses. Also, there are others who volunteer who have not served. Our youngest brigade member is 15 years old. One thing everyone has in common — a soft spot in our hearts for veterans and a desire to preserve history.”

Hicks said this week that everything done for the museum is handled by volunteers.

“There wouldn’t be a museum if volunteers weren’t helping,” she said.

“We’re a military family, so it’s an important thing to do,” Hicks said. Her husband, Paul, is a Vietnam War Air Force veteran. “Vilonia is a military

community. Veterans are known for their service,” she said.

The museum also organizes a Veterans Day event and provides programs addressing veterans affairs, historical events and military-related programs for the community, such as Civil War re-enactments.

Volunteers spent at least 10,000 hours on the project in 2012, Hicks said.

She filled out the application for the honor and also documented the volunteer hours of the Vilonia Fire Department, with 30,000 hours, and other agencies, she said

“It really makes you proud of your community that people take so much pride and care so much,” Firestone said. “I don’t know what the total hours are that have been volunteered, but it’s a tremendous amount. We’re very proud.”

In contrast to Vilonia, receiving the Volunteer Community of the Year honor is old hat to another Arkansas city.

Call it lucky No. 13 for Heber Springs.

Heber Springs Mayor Jackie McPherson said the community has won the honor that many times.

“We were shocked last year when we didn’t win it,” he said.

“In Heber Springs, we’re so blessed to have so many great volunteers, whether it’s Cleburne County Cares, the Humane Society, Christian Health Center, Haven House and so many other organizations,” McPherson said. “We got a new one this year called Breaking Bread, … run from the local Methodist Church. Our volunteers just do so much.

“We’re not any different than any other county; we have a lot of people in need. To provide these services — food,

clothing, medical care, … that’s just a wonderful service to be able to offer.”

He said the state Department of Human Services sends out a form every year to cities to apply for the award.

“You can’t just write down volunteer hours; you have to document everything,” he said.

Heber Springs weighs in with a whopping 130,000 to 140,000 annual volunteer hours, he said.

“Heber Springs is kind of unique in that we do have a large retirement population,” he said. “A lot were professionals in their careers, and now that they’re retired, they want to give back, so we take advantage of that.

“Our community is what it is because of our volunteers,” McPherson said.

McPherson is one of those, too. He’s a volunteer firefighter, and he said he participates in an annual toy drive at Christmas.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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