RUSSELLVILLE — Little Rock Fair’s boys and Pottsville’s girls took their respective divisions in the Holiday Hoops for Hunger basketball tournament at Russellville recently, but the real winners were hungry people all over the River Valley.
The post-Christmas event, in its third year, raised more than $54,000 and more than 3,000 food units — mainly cereal, peanut butter and canned goods. Beneficiaries were Manna House, a ministry of Russellville’s First United Methodist Church that provides food and services for people in need, and River Valley Food 4 Kids, which provides food for children in the Russellville, Dardanelle, Dover and Atkins school districts.
“Both of these organizations just really fit the description of fighting hunger in the River Valley,” Russellville Athletic Director Johnny Johnson said Wednesday. “In our third year, we’ve surpassed $100,000 total. The first year we raised more than $30,000 in cash. Last year it was more than $45,000, and this year over $54,000.”
The cash will be divided equally between Manna House and River Valley Food 4 Kids.
Title sponsors included the Rotary Club of Russellville, Tyson Foods and Bridgestone Firestone of Russellville.
Participating teams included Fair, Russellville, De Queen, Pottsville, Episcopal Collegiate, Clarksville, Little Rock Catholic and Cabot in the boys tournament; and Pottsville, Russellville, Fort Smith Southside, De Queen, Wonderview, Clarksville, Charleston and Cabot on the girls side.
As athletic director at the Little Rock School District several years ago, Johnson was one of the founders of the Jammin for Jackets tournament, which raises money to buy letter jackets for LRSD student-athletes. He brought that idea of community involvement when he moved to Russellville.
“When we built our new arena here, I wanted to start a tournament that gave back to our community, so I came up with the idea of Hoops for Hunger,”Johnson said. “I wanted to do something here because our community has been so supportive of our improvements, from the arena to the new indoor facility to the fine arts center.
“Hunger affects so many people that a lot of people don’t realize. My wife is an elementary school counselor, and she was aware of the backpack program (in which food is sent home with schoolchildren in food insecurity for weekends and holidays), and we go to the Methodist Church, so we were also aware of Manna House.
“It felt like Hoops for Hunger was what we needed to do for this community.”
Johnson took his idea to the Rotary Club of Russellville. Then-president Tonya Oates quickly joined him.
“She has really been the driving force from the Rotary Club here to help put the tournament on,” Johnson said.
Local Rotary members volunteer to work the three-day tournament between Christmas and New Year’s.
Roy Smith, 2017-18 president of the Rotary Club of Russellville, wrote in his letter for the tournament program that another component was added last year.
“We invited the teams and a sponsoring Rotary Club in their area to join our Hungerbusters,” Smith wrote. “We challenged teams to collect jars of peanut butter and boxes of breakfast cereal. Each team sought to collect the largest amount. That team received a check to share with a group fighting hunger in their area. The items donated could also be shared in their community.”
Johnson said Rotarian A.J. Walsh was in charge of the food portion of the tournament. Pottsville’s boys, sponsored by the Rotary Club of Russellville, won the Hungerbusters team competition for 2017, contributing more than 800 food units.
“[Walsh] keeps up with the team competition and also travels around to set up other Rotary Clubs as sponsors,” Johnson said. “He does a great job coordinating all of that. He came up with the idea of the team competition. Teams can bring food each day; their parents can bring food; their Rotary sponsors can bring food. We also give them the opportunity to leave the food for us or to take it back to a food pantry from their area.”
Serving as team sponsors this year were Rotary Clubs from Cabot, De Queen, Clarksville, Dardanelle, Fort Smith Southside, Little Rock, West Little Rock and Russellville.
Others contributing included the tournament officials.
“Everybody donates their time, and the officials will call a game and then donate a game, so this year, by them doing that, we had almost $2,000 put back in to the total,” Johnson said. “They’ve done that every year. That’s a unique feature to our tournament. We want to brag on all of the referees.”
The tournament also included a group of “Hunger Fighters” — sponsors who contributed $100. The 2017 list included Mike Tedder, Mike Roys, David and Tonya Oates, Arvest, Gretchen Douthit, Cindy O’Donnell, John Stottman Jr., CPA, PA, Mary Metz-Blaylock, Jackie Heflin, Bill and Sherry Srygley, Roy Smith, Sandy Smith, Pete Grant, JBS, Hodges & Associates Appraisals, Burris Inc., Taco Villa, C&D Drug Store, T.L. Todd Sweeden, Source Logistics, Inc., Urology Clinic PA, West Main Donuts, Humphrey Funeral Service, Shinn Funeral Service, AJ Walsh, Lynn Walsh, Randy and Vickie Horton, Peters Family Living, Doug Skelton, Jim Collins, Mary Ann Rollans, Arkansas Restoration, David Snellings, Best Ride, Boyd Osborne Realtor Group, Glenn Heaton, Chuck and Nancy Bell, John Shoptaw, Liberty Car Wash, Old South Restaurant, Ed Medley, Shari Bice-Becker and Carney Carnahan.
Johnson said the tournament gate of approximately $13,000 made up about one-fourth of the $54,000 total, with sponsorships making up the remaining three-fourths.
“It’s just been a really, really neat event, and I would’ve never envisioned three years ago when we started what it would grow to by now,” he said. “We were just hoping we might raise $20,000 to be able to give $10,000 to each of our charities.
“The teams that have come in have appreciated what the mission of our tournament has been. It’s turned into kind of a ministry. We hope to continue making it bigger and better.”