Wednesday, January 07, 2015

TOP STORY >> Positive stories of 2014

Leader staff writer

From a dad giving his life to save his family, a bus driver honored for her actions during a kidnapping and teens volunteering – good news abounds.

Bad news always seems to find its way to the media without any effort, but good news, of which there is much more, doesn’t get told or reported to newspapers as much as it should. But The Leader in 2014 still had article after article of good news, inspiring stories and happy endings.

These are just some that appeared in last year’s pages.

• A ceremony in early December at Little Rock Air Force Base commemorated the life and heroism of Arkansas Guardsman Master Sgt. Daniel Wassom, who gave his life so his wife and daughters would live after a tornado hit their Vilonia home in April. 

Wassom, 31, shielded his 5-year-old daughter, Lorelai, his wife, Suzanne, and their 7-year-old daughter, Sydney, in the hallway of their home when an EF4 tornado — with winds of at least 180 mph — traveled 41 miles on a path that included Mayflower, Vilonia, El Paso and a piece of Pulaski County. Wassom was one of 15 people killed by the tornado.

Wassom’s wife and parents, Pam and Dan Wassom Sr., accepted the Airman’s Medal and participated in the dedication of a street in Dan’s name on the base. The Airman’s Medal is awarded to Air Force members who risk their lives but not in combat.

Col. Robert Ator II, 189th Airlift Wing commander, said, “We are humbled by his character. Sergeant Wassom died as he lived, in service to others.”

• Not looking for honors or recognition, Jacksonville still presented Christine and Jack Henderson with a key to the city for donating a $27,000 mobile adoption unit to the animal shelter.

The 7-by-18-foot trailer has a generator, air conditioning, a sink with cold and hot water and a back end that comes down to act as a ramp. That ramp will be used to load homeless pets for off-site adoption events.

The ramp will also allow potential forever families to come inside and look at adoptable dogs and cats. The unit can hold 17 to 22 cats and dogs.

“It’s amazing. I don’t really have words for what she did,” Animal Services Director Hedy Wuelling said.

The shelter had gathered $3,000 in donations toward the purchase of a trailer and wanted to give it to the Hendersons to defray the cost. But they told Wuelling to keep the $3,000 for spaying and neutering pets or other shelter needs.

• In early June, there was an article about Chris Strong, a Cabot teen who suffered through a cyberbully attack and now participates in four national anti-bullying campaigns.

He also helped organize one of them, the Big Dream Tour.

The 17-year-old, who is now home schooled three days a week through Cabot’s Academic Center of Excel-lence, signed up for an Insta-gram account two years ago.

His “I put my heart out there” attitude quickly gained tens of thousands of followers. Strong said millions know him through social media.

The “social media influencer” also attracted a hacker, who bullied him.

Strong said the bully’s followers called, threatening to kill him, his sister and his girlfriend. The bully later apologized, and the ordeal ended when Strong’s parents threatened to press charges.

The tours involve social media influencers like Strong meeting and greeting their fans, taking photos with them, signing autographs, selling merchandise and speaking out about bullying — usually on a stage set up in a convention center. There are often musical performances, too.

Strong said he tells the thousands gathered at the tour destinations, “They’re all beautiful in their own unique way.”

He continued, “I just try to make them feel better, like inspired. I want them going to bed with a smile on their face and saying ‘I need to do the same. I need to go help others as well’ because in the end, whenever you die, what’s going to be left? Leave a name for yourself.”

Strong pursued a social media career in the first place because he wanted to inspire people.

“A lot of times we get messages or we get fan mail in the mail and people are like ‘you saved my life, or you did this for me, or that. You inspire me. Keep on doing what you’re doing,’” he said.

• Volunteers and donations were in abundance after a killer tornado ripped through Vilonia and El Paso in late April.

“We are overwhelmed with the support of the community and strangers. We want to thank everyone. They will never know the level of our gratitude,” said Robert Chambers. His family’s home was destroyed in the storm.

He said they couldn’t believe the amount of donations they’ve received. “Volunteers came up and cleaned debris from our house. Strangers stop on the street, giving anonymously. It brings tears to your eyes. It is emotional.”

Beebe Elementary teachers, students and counselors assisted their fellow classmate Madison Chambers with clothing, food and other items.

North Pulaski High School cheerleaders volunteered and lent a hand in the cleanup efforts.
To help with the recovery efforts, 12 area churches and many individuals donated money into a disaster relief account set up for the Chambers.

The Chambers did not have renters insurance and lost everything to the twister.

“So many people gave out of the goodness of their hearts. I can’t say thank you enough. Thank you doesn’t cover it,” Robert Chambers said.

“You can’t put it into words. It restored my faith in humanity. I have a new outlook and want to pay it forward and will start trying to,” Robert Chambers said.

• The North Pulaski High School’s Diversity Club, sponsored by photography teacher Natalie Larrison, has joined a global anti-bullying group action art project called “Inside Out” in its efforts to make people more aware of bullying.

Larrison said, “Our project ‘Inside Out: Be Nice’ displays poster-size portraits of students nominated from the student body by Diversity Club members to be the faces featured to express our passion to stop bullying and advocate for others to accept one another. These posters represent a student’s voice. Their image alone will remind others that we are all human and deserve respect.”

Some “Inside Out” projects are displayed in public places, such as the sides of buildings in urban areas. Other smaller displays are on the outside walls of schools.

• Then there was the Aug. 20 story about three North Metro Medical Center Auxiliary volunteers – all in their 90s – who had logged 32,688 volunteer hours at the hospital. That equates to 4,086 eight-hour days, or just over 11 years of service.

The ladies, Maxine Jackson, 91; Francis Smith, 90; and Pauline Wehe, 92 were honored in August and made queens for the day.

Auxiliary president Norma Haralson said, “I think it is awesome that we have three ladies like these that are still active and participate. It’s just wonderful.”

• In late April, the newspaper got word that Calvin D. (Cal) Rollins of Cabot and nine other honorees were inducted into the Army Ranger Hall of Fame at Fort Benning, Ga.

Staff Sergeant Calvin D Rollins, 67, a 100-percent disabled veteran, was inducted into the Hall of Fame for his service during the Vietnam War. Born in Pine Bluff and a graduate of Morrilton High School, he enlisted in the Army in June 1965. By June 1966, he was an Airborne Ranger and team leader assigned to the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. 

He was assigned in 1968 to the Special Forces Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observation group, where he headed special projects. Wounded in action, Rollins was medically evacuated and retired in 1969 at 50 percent disability. 

His accomplishments earned him several decorations and awards, including the Bronze Star Service Medal, the Purple Heart with one oak leaf cluster, two Purple Hearts, two Air Medals, the Army Commendation with Valor Device, the Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, the Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm, the Vietnam Campaign Medal, the Presidential Unit Citation with four bronze oak leaves, Republic of Vietnam Presidential Unit Citation, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation with Palm, Combat Infantryman Badge, the Parachutists Badge and more. 

Begun in 1992, the Ranger Hall of Fame is made up of Rangers nominated by select Ranger units and associations representing each era of Ranger history. The selection board scrutinizes each nominee to ensure that only the most extraordinary contributions receive acknowledgement. Only those Rangers whose contributions embody the spirit of sacrifice, loyal service and character are inducted to stand as inspirations and examples to all professionals.

After his military service, Rollins worked in engineering and law enforcement, retiring in 1999 after being declared 100 percent disabled. A former secretary of the Echo 20th/Charlie Rangers Association and the Special Operations Association, Rollins still serves as webmaster for both organizations as well as for the Worldwide Army Rangers Association. 

He is working on plans for the opening of the Special Forces Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observation Museum, which he founded. 

He also works with the veterans in the post-traumatic stress disorder program at the Veterans Health Systems hospital in North Little Rock. 

• When it comes to the military and veterans, hardly a week went by when there wasn’t a feature on one of these heroes.

Here is one that is representative of all the veterans in the area.

Second World War veteran Bill Schoonover, 93, of Cabot recalled his time in the China-Burma-India Theater during the war. He has been an American Legion member for 67 years.

Schoonover was in the Army from December 1942 to May 1946. He enlisted because he was single and 21 years old. He had a cousin and two brother-in-laws working on farms and they had families.

“When you go into the service, go in with the idea of having a good time, or you’re going to be miserable,” Schoonover said.

Schoonover had two roles in the Army. He was a truck driver and in the signal corps. He handled communications coding and de-coded messages, some that were top secret.

“We knew everything that was going on,” Schoonover said.

“I drove a six-by-six truck on the Burma Road from India to China trying to get gas and supplies into China. Once was enough. The drop-off was 5,000 feet on some of those corners,” Schoonover said.

He recalled leaving boot camp in April 1943. They spent 31 days on a ship that took them to Australia and westward to Calcutta, India.

“Our camp was in the middle of the jungle. At night, you could see jackals and lions from your tent,” Schoonover said.

• In early February, with temperatures often hitting freezing or below, two 15-year-old brothers in Jacksonville set out to collect 2,014 blankets for the homeless by the end of the month.

Dair’Reyel and Andre Veasey, students at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, already had about 200 blankets.

More than half the blankets collected were donated to the Compassion Center in Little Rock, and the Veaseys personally delivered many of them to homeless families who live under the Broadway Bridge in Little Rock.

The brothers knocked on doors asking Jacksonville residents to donate blankets because they wanted to help and inspire others to help.

“The best way we could spend our time is help other people,” Dair’Reyel Veasey said.

He continued, “Some people think like ‘oh they can take care of themselves’ or ‘they shouldn’t have got into this situation in the first place.’ Well, you probably don’t know the story of why they’re in this situation. The most important thing is you can help them.”

Andre Veasey agreed. He said, “We don’t want anyone to get sick, or even die, in the streets.” 

The brothers hope to make it an annual event, and to hold the drive a few months before cold weather sets in so that people will have blankets when they are needed.

• Pulaski County Special School District bus driver Sheila Hart, of Jacksonville, who was instrumental in ending a bus-jacking in October 2013, was honored in late January by the American Red Cross of Greater Arkansas.

Eleven children were on the bus. No one was injured.

She was one of 21 Arkansans who were presented Hero Awards by the Red Cross at a luncheon at Verizon Arena for saving lives or preventing harm to others in danger.

Hart, 51, was driving a school bus to Pinewood Elementary in Jacksonville when the bus was hijacked. She kept the kids and hijacker calm, saying her actions during that frightening incident were all in a day’s work.

Speaking about the Red Cross award, Hart said, “Well, it means a lot but actually I was just doing my job. You know, that’s my job. I get paid to drive them to school safe and protect them.”

The local Red Cross defines Arkansas Heroes as Arkansans ready to answer a call for help to prevent injury or death because of awareness and skills they gained through disaster, health and safety or other training.

• A Jacksonville fifth grader was just working to write his essay to the best of his ability. He knew the financial essay was forwarded to a national contest, but Dylan Mosakowski, a Warren Dupree student, had no idea that he would be named the top financial writer in the state in his division and be honored by Economics Arkansas and his local church.

He won $50 and a plaque from the economics group, which helps sponsor the contest, but also $1,000 scholarship from his church for his achievement. All that showed one never knows what a good effort might bring.

Mosakowski loves basketball, acting in Shakespeare plays, community service, good grades and researching potential stock market winners. His essay was on why Buffalo Wild Wings was an excellent investment.

The fifth grader admitted he’s never been to a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant even though one is located just a few miles away in Sherwood. “I saw the numbers on Yahoo! Finance, and they looked good. The more research I did, the better it looked,” he said.

• And even sports heroes took time in 2014 to speak to youngsters and other groups about education, perseverance and breaking the chain of abuse.

Former Razorback football standout and current NFL tight end D.J. Williams and his mother, Vicky Williams, spoke to a full house at the Open Arms Shelter’s second annual Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Banquet held at Cabot Junior High North in April.

Vicky Williams told of protecting D.J. and two other siblings from an abusive husband and having to leave.

“I married him, and we had three beautiful children,” Vicky Williams said. “Everything was fine for the first 10 years, and then he had two tragedies. After those two tragedies, he was diagnosed as bipolar. He turned to alcohol first, and, all of a sudden, drugs came into the picture.”

Vicky Williams described one incident in particular as her ‘lightning bolt moment’. It was when her only son was on what she thought she was a fishing trip with her father, but it turned out to be something completely different.

Instead of going fishing, Vicky’s then-husband took D.J., who was a young boy at the time, with him on a drug run. When his father got out of the car to pick up what ended up being crack cocaine, he handed his son a gun and told him that if anyone tried to bother him to ‘take care of it.’

Later that day, Vicky could tell something was off about her son, so she asked him what was wrong. D.J. then told his mother what happened and also admitted to her that the only person he ever considered ‘taking care of’ that day was himself.

“Here was the sweetest little thing that I loved so dearly,” Vicky Williams said. “He was so terrified and so miserable, and that was the only way he could think to get out of the situation.”

That prompted Vicky to take her kids and leave their home.

“I can now tell you that my oldest daughter is working for a very prominent doctor in Dallas. She’s doing very well. My middle child is a doctor in physical therapy, and my son did go to the University of Arkansas and got a degree in communications and he got to play for the Razorbacks, and he’s playing right now for the New England Patriots, and he’s just awesome.

“One thing I want these children to know is that no matter what their past has been, their future can be extremely bright. It doesn’t matter what they’ve been through; they make their future. And, as long as they have people that support them and believe in them, like my children had and I had, they can do anything.”

D.J. Williams spent the majority of his time at the podium focusing on the positive things that have happened in his life since those dark days, and how the people that helped him along the way shaped him into the man he’s become today. He said he was grateful to have a bright future as opposed to what he thought would be the alternative.

“I would never have imagined that I’m here,” said D.J. Williams. “I never would’ve imagined that I could buy my mom a house. Things like that are unbelievable because of where I was. I wouldn’t even say that my dreams came true because they weren’t even dreams. I can’t even remember having aspirations or dreams of doing so many good things.

“I believe that everybody has a purpose in life, and fear can sometimes get in the way of those dreams, and that’s not what we want to happen to these children. We don’t want their fear to become bigger than their dreams.”

• Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl champion Clinton McDonald stopped by Jacksonville High School in March to encourage the 11th graders to do their best on the literacy proficiency exam and make the most of their educational opportunities.

McDonald is a 2005 Jacksonville High graduate who went to the University of Memphis. He was a defensive tackle for the Seahawks and now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

He reflected on being in class at Jacksonville with the students. “I was in the same shoes you all are in with testing, getting into the next grade.

“It’s an important time in your 11th grade year. You need to take these tests seriously.

“Not only does it affect the school, it affects you as well,” McDonald said.

McDonald said he didn’t take tests seriously when he was in high school, and it affected him later with college. He missed two tests, and he could not get all of his scholarship money guaranteed until he made up those tests.

McDonald wondered, if he didn’t take those tests, where he would be. “Everybody in here can read and can write. Go ahead and take advantage of every step on the test. We all thought these tests do not amount to anything, but how many of you all want to go to college or the military,” McDonald asked.

Several students raised their hands. McDonald asked what the plans were for those who don’t want to go to college or the military. A student said he was going to roam the streets, selling dope.

“That the dumbest answer I ever heard,” McDonald said.

“You all have the opportunity to further yourselves in the world, and put your stamp on the United States, or for those in the military, all over the world. Regardless of what you want to do in life, you are going to take tests.

“You all think I play football, went to the Super Bowl, that I don’t know about that life. I was once ya’ll. I was running around on Somar Street, New Town and Sunnyside. It ain’t nothing new, guys. (You think) it is funny because it’s “Jacksonville Hood”. Well, guess what, everywhere you go has a hood. What does that mean? Either you are going to change your environment or you’re going to let your environment become you,” McDonald continued.

He said it’s beneficial for students to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them.

“Even though it might be boring, even though it seems like (you) don’t want to do this, it’s necessary. How does a guy go from college football to NFL football? From the hard work and blessings God gave him. If you don’t want to work, you will not reap the reward. Your work right now is taking these tests. Your job is to go out here and study. Do your job, make good grades and make good marks on the test.

“I was one of those kids who made mediocre grades. I could have made better grades, but, at the same time, I didn’t care enough to make better grades. Looking back on it, God has blessed me to be where I’m at now. At the same time, everybody is not as fortunate to do what I do. Everybody is not going to be a LeBron James, a Michael Jordan, a Deion Sanders or a quarterback in the NFL.

“You can be the best God allows you to be by taking advantage of the opportunities you have,” McDonald explained.