VILONIA — Daniel Smith kept his 6- and 9-year-old sons home with him Wednesday in the hopes that maybe they'd be able to meet President Barack Obama when he toured tornado damage in Vilonia.
It turned out to be the right call.
Smith and his sons Garrison Dority, 6, and Gabriel Dority, 9, were among the storm victims that Obama conversed with as he walked through the Parkwood Meadows subdivision, where dozens of homes were destroyed in the April 27 EF4 tornado.
"It was amazing," Smith said shortly after the presidential motorcade pulled away from the neighborhood. "It's not every day you get to meet a president. He was very kind. He said he was very sorry for our loss over here. He really did a good job of showing his support for our community and everything."
Smith and his family survived the tornado along with about 200 others in a safe room built at Vilonia High School after a tornado hit the city in 2011. His home in the subdivision is one of the few that wasn't either destroyed or damaged beyond repair.
Smith said Obama not only spoke with him about the tornado and the recovery effort, but he conversed with the two boys, asking their names and giving each a "challenge coin" with a presidential seal on it.
"It was such a fulfilling experience, because you know it's something they're going to remember forever," Smith said. "I hate because of this it happened. However, I'm really excited for them ... It was so awesome to see the leader of our country shake hands with my children and me. It was just a great, great feeling."
Gabriel, still clutching the coin in his hand and standing by his father's side, called the president's visit "pretty cool."
"I really felt like he really cared about us," he said.
Daniel Cunningham, who lived a few houses down from Smith's family on Clover Ridge Drive, also spent a few moments with Obama.
Cunningham, 36, survived despite his home being destroyed. By Wednesday, the debris had been cleared from the lot, leaving only the concrete slab on which it used to stand.
He said Obama's visit was a positive step as Vilonia works to rebuild.
"He told us how he felt for our despair and our recovery. And I really believe he was sincere," Cunningham said. "I think this is going to bring attention to our needs here."