This time last year, two students at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia were in desperate need, following some devastating news.
“The music department was doing a fundraiser for a student and his wife,” said Jennifer Boyett, vice president for university advancement. “Dr. Glen Jones had gone to the concert and learned [the department was] doing a fundraiser for the couple.
“They were young newlyweds, having been married for less than a year. The husband was in school, trying to finish his degree to become a teacher. But his wife, who was also a student, had cancer.”
Boyett said they were trying to pay for school and her medical bills, and it was all becoming a bit overwhelming.
“When Dr. Jones found out, he and I began asking donors, telling them about great students who had just fallen on hard times,” Boyett said. “That is a lot to handle at any age.
“But we found support. We had a number of people step up.”
Boyett said the couple were so grateful.
“We brought the husband in and had a conversation, telling him that his bill for the spring semester was taken care of,” Boyett said. “He couldn’t believe people came out of nowhere to help him.”
Boycott said the husband has persisted in his schooling, even though his wife ultimately succumbed to cancer and died about a month ago.
“Those types of stories are what makes Henderson special to me,” Boyett said.
Boyett also serves as executive director for the Henderson State University Foundation, a nonprofit that is governed by a 13-member board of directors.
“We help provide scholarships and help students in need, really anything that the university needs,” she said.
“Even though we are a state-funded school, it is becoming more and more important to ask our alumni and friends to provide private financial support,” Boyett said. “We have some incredible students with some great needs.”
Through her new job and the Arkadelphia Running Club — which she is an active member of as well — Boyett was introduced to the Junior Auxiliary of Arkadelphia. It was there that she became the co-chair and organizer of the Angel Tree Project for Clark County.
“When I was a kid, we used to get angels off the tree at church back in Conway,” Boyett said. “My family would always buy for a child in need. I was very familiar with the concept of the Angel Tree and the importance of it in the community.”
Boyett said her past experiences with the Angel Tree Project were part of the reasons she wanted to co-chair the effort.
“I was excited when I joined the Junior Auxiliary to be a part of Angel Tree,” she said. “The ladies who had a leadership role the past five years were finishing up their time at the Junior Auxiliary.
“So I, and others, decided to jump in and take the reins.”
She said they serve about 550 kids each year in Clark County.
“The one that spoke to my heart was Angel Tree,” she said. “There is nothing better than seeing a family come in and pick their gifts just before Christmas.
“They are so grateful for the assistance, for anything they can get to help their children.”
Boyett said that last year, one family knew another family was on the tree.
“I believe they went to church together, so they sought out those children. They wanted to buy for those children,” she said.
“I will never forget the little boy, who came in with his dad,” Boyett said. “They brought in the presents, and the little boy said, ‘This bike is for my best friend.’
“He was so proud of that and so excited that he was getting to help provide Christmas for his best friend.”
LaRoyce Browning, who serves as one of the co-chairs for the Angel Tree Project, said she loves seeing the excitement in the parents’ faces.
“My favorite personal experience [was when] one parent cried and said, ‘I would not have Christmas this year if not for Angel Tree,’” Browning said.
Browning, who works for the Clark County Department of Human Services as the local office’s administrative assistant, said part of her responsibilities for the Angel Tree Project is to oversee the applications, making sure the applicants meet certain qualifications.
“Every Angel Tree sets its own criteria, and there is no perfect system, but the best way for us is to have applications turned in to [the Department of Human Services],” Boyett said. “[Families] have to have transitional employment assistance, or TEA, food stamps and ARKids A to qualify for the program.”
Browning said she has known Boyett for three years.
“Jennifer is a go-getter,” Browning said. “We work well together, and our personalities don’t clash. She is very well organized. …
“Her job is very tedious, but she does it well.”
Amanda Baker is the finance chair for the Junior Auxiliary, and she said her main responsibility is to raise money throughout the year so members can purchase gifts for those angels who aren’t picked.
“We go shopping for those children,” Baker said.
Boyett said that one night in December, close to 50 active members, as well as life members and associate members, will come back and meet at the Walmart Supercenter in Arkadelphia to shop.
“We set an amount that we have available, which can be between $40 and $60 per child,” Boyett said. “We spend half on their wants and half on their needs.
“We are there anywhere from three to five hours one evening, shopping for all the remaining children.”
Baker, who works full time for HSU as the area coordinator for the residence life department, said she has lived in Arkadelphia for 20 years, and while she did participate in the Angel Tree Project, she never really knew the details behind it until she was older.
“Working the Angel Tree Project has really been an eye-opener for me,” Baker said. “It has given me the opportunity to help more than just one child.
“To see the reaction of parents’ faces after we have provided for the children — it is a feeling that I will never forget.”
One of the next big fundraisers for the Junior Auxiliary and the Angel Tree Project is a basketball tournament on Dec. 5 at the Arkadelphia Rec Center, beginning at 5 p.m. The cost is $5 per person or one unopened toy. For team information, contact Clark County Sheriff Jason Watson at (870) 246-2222 or Baker at (870) 403-7312.
“I work with people all day long who want to give back,” Boyett said. “It just warms my heart. I am grateful that I get to do it.
“I feel blessed every day to get to come to work — even more blessed that I get to be a part of Angel Tree.”
Boyett has been at HSU for four years, after working at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway for 12 years.
“I wasn’t sure I could go somewhere else and be as passionate as I was at UCA, but working for [Dr. Jones], who is an alum leading this institution — he has such a great vision for this university and has such high standards. He wants the best for his alma mater,” Boyett said. “I really bought into that. It is something I can get behind.”
Boyett was born and raised in Conway, having graduated from Conway High School in 1997. She received her bachelor’s degree from UCA in 2001 and earned her master’s degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 2003.
“Ten days after I walked across the stage [at UCA], I got a job there,” she said. “I worked there for 12 years, with a decade of it in communications and publications.”
She said a mutual friend, Kevin Braswell, actually connected her with Jones.
“He said, ‘I know you want to become vice president, and Henderson State is looking for a vice president for advancement,’” Boyett recalled. “He said, ‘I think the two of you would really hit it off.’”
Boyett said she was happy at UCA, having just been promoted to lead the development team, one level under the vice president.
“It was a whirlwind interview process,” Boyett said. “I just really thought it was good experience. I didn’t think I would land the job because I was only 34 at the time.
“I was the youngest vice president at the time at a four-year university in Arkansas.”
She said it was pretty scary leaving her hometown, but she said she and her family “really found our home here.”
“We love Henderson,” Boyett said. “We love Arkadelphia. Small-town life is wonderful. It is safe and friendly, and just a really great place to live.”
Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or firstname.lastname@example.org.