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Outside the box and into the mud

Pulling up to Tommy and Susan Conder’s farm just outside Judsonia, there’s little at first glance that makes it stand out from the countless other farms that dot Arkansas’ landscape.

But not far beyond the pastures where the Conders’ cattle grazes is a challenge waiting to be conquered.

A few years back, Tommy and Susan attended a Natural Resource Enterprise workshop in Stuttgart. Put on by the NRE program at Mississippi State University, the workshop was designed to spark the imaginations of farmers and landowners as to how their land could do more to make money than simply produce livestock, row crops or timber.

The wheels began turning for Tommy and Susan, who quickly recognized that there was a lot more they could do with the 800 acres of land in White County that they and one of Tommy’s sons own.

“Some people at that workshop,” Tommy said, “they were doing corn mazes and things like that on their land. We thought, ‘We’ve got other stuff we could do.’”

That “other stuff” eventually became an 8-kilometer obstacle course that spans a large portion of the Conders’ farm – most of it land not suitable for grazing, but perfect for mud pits, climbing walls, hay bale obstacles and water slides, just to name a few of the course’s features.

The Beast

Tommy and Susan recently took me and Program Officer Samantha Evans on a tour of the course, and although the temperatures were a fair bit cooler than they are in May when they hold their big annual competition – Mud Mayhem – it was easy to get a sense of the type of atmosphere that exists on race day.

“We really love people laughing and having a good time,” Tommy said.

But all the fun and laughter requires quite a bit of careful planning. It takes a staff of 20-30 to make the race happen, and they are trained for several weeks leading up to the event. Susan takes care of the planning and logistics - hiring and training folks from the surrounding area - while Tommy focuses on building and managing the course itself.

“I’m not a businessman,” Tommy said. “I’m a worker.”

Susan agreed and praised Tommy for his resourcefulness in constructing the course.

“If I can describe it to Tommy, he can build it,” she said.

The finish

Eight hundred acres is no small piece of property, and the Conders have imaginations big enough to fill it all and then some. Tommy admitted that in the five years they’ve held Mud Mayhem, they have yet to break even. But that’s only because they keep building and adding onto the course.

“We’ve sunk quite a bit of money into it,” Tommy said. “Would I go back and change that? No. We can still see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

And they’re finding new and creative ways to diversify the potential of what they’ve already built. Tommy explained that most of the obstacles on the course are mobile. They plan to load a number of them up on trailers next year and set up a course at Portfest in Jacksonport. They’re looking at other opportunities to take their obstacles on the road, too.

But more important to the Conders than finding ways to make money off their land is the way they’ve been able to give back.

A few years ago, Tommy’s son Sean returned home after serving a tour in Afghanistan as part of the Air Force. Tommy explained how Sean’s unit was involved in combat and survived life-threatening situations.

“They came back pretty spooked,” Tommy said. “We wanted to find a way to help them feel normal again.”

So Tommy and Susan organized their first Heroes R&R, an experience they have since expanded to include members of the military, firefighters, law enforcement officers and health care workers – all those who serve on the front lines of emergency situations. The Conders organize excursions for these groups, which may involve camping, fishing, trap shooting or the obstacle course. They utilize the eight-bedroom lodge they’ve built for these experiences, and the results have been amazing.

After that first experience with Sean’s Air Force unit, Sean’s squadron commander told Tommy, “This has brought our squadron back together.”

Tommy and Susan are exploring grant money that is available to support the excursions, hoping that it will help them expand what they offer.

Parachute

For what looks like a standard 350-head cattle operation from a distance, Tommy and Susan Conder have built something spectacular. And it all started with the spark of an idea at a workshop for landowners.

The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute is partnering with Mississippi State University and the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service to present a similar workshop here at the Institute on Thursday, March 9. The workshop, which is supported by the Arkansas Forestry Association, the Arkansas Forestry Commission and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, will be geared toward landowners who produce timber, but all landowners are welcome and stand to gain some knowledge about income diversification, land management, the Farm Bill, legal issues and more.

Learn more about the Landowners Workshop by clicking here.

You can learn more about Mud Mayhem here or on the race’s Facebook page here.

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Out of many, one

In September, I went into the first session of Leadership Conway County not quite sure what to expect. It started with a two-day retreat with a group of people whom I had never met. I was curious as to what we would be learning as well as doing for the betterment of Conway County. After just three sessions into our 10 month program, I have learned more about the needs of our community, as well as what our group wants and desires from these classes. And, unexpectedly, I have learned more about myself in the process.

The Leadership Conway County Class of 2017 (or LCC 2.0 … we do not have an official name at the moment) is quite a unique group. The members range from a senior in high school to the chief of police; a Vietnam veteran-turned-city councilman to a man who participates in timber sports in his spare time; school teachers to a conference food service manager. We all see different areas of the community, which helps to give a unique perspective on the needs of the citizens. The classes so far have ranged from a jovial getting-to-know-each-other retreat to an emotional session on what makes a great leader. And we are really just getting started, being only three sessions into the class.

At our first meeting, after introductions, I learned a little about the history of Conway County, including the importance and changes that came by Winthrop Rockefeller moving to the county. Some of the story I had already heard, but being able to hear some personal vignettes made the influence more real. Jerry Smith, our interim leader (he emphasizes the interim part), put together a great two-day program, which helped us not only get to know each other, but aided us in defining what we felt were the needs and wants of our community. The next session, which started as an interactive exercise on communication, became a discussion on the different types of citizens within our community and what ways we can work with all of them to help get things done. Since the majority of the members have lived in Conway County either all of their lives or at least more than half of their life, I was able to interject my experiences not being from the area. Our latest session was spent hearing from two speakers on the importance of leadership and what makes someone an effective person. I learned the most about myself during this session. And by knowing more about me, I can use what I have to help others. The other members are not necessarily involved for the same reasons, but our ultimate goal is shared: We all want our county to grow. We want it to be a place we are proud to call home, a place to raise a family, a place the residents want to stay.

I am honored to be involved with this group of citizens who are all wanting to get to work on helping their community grow. Though we are still finding our footing, the Leadership Conway County Class of 2017 is sure to spend the next few months getting things rolling in the community.

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Rural Health Day highlights state's needs, those working to meet them

Happy National Rural Health Day! Today, November 17, 2016, is the first official Rural Health Day in Arkansas, recognized by a recent proclamation from Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Organized nationally by the National Organization of State Rural Health Offices, the third Thursday of every November is set aside to recognize the work done in rural communities by health officials across the nation.

With countless acres of farmland, the Delta, friendly small towns and close-knit communities, Arkansas knows rural. In fact, while the national average for rural populations was 19% in 2010, Arkansas averaged 44%, according to the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Rural Profile of Arkansas - 2015. And while rural communities are great places to live and work, they present unique challenges for health care. Both rural and urban care centers in the state look to improve the quality and access of care for the people they serve, but in rural areas that often extends to transportation concerns, telecommunications support and a dearth of physical spaces to receive care. According to the Rural Profile, there are an average of 64.5 primary care physicians per 100,000 people in rural Arkansas compared to 139 physicians per 100,000 people in urban areas.   

Recognizing those challenges to rural health care is an important part of Rural Health Day, especially in our state where if you don’t personally live in a rural area, odds are that a family member or loved one does. Equally important, however, is to recognize and appreciate the continued efforts to improve rural health care in the state and address those challenges head on. In Arkansas, that includes the Arkansas Department of Health’s Office of Rural Health and Primary Care. Beyond leading the charge to officially recognize Rural Health Day in the state, the ORHPC is involved with administering state health care grant programs to rural areas in need, developing training programs for continuing education specific to rural areas, supporting  the development of community-based health centers and much more.

The Arkansas Department of Health and the ORHPC share the goal of improved rural health care with many organizations across the state, including the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Arkansas Hospital Association, Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield, Arkansas Minority Health Commission, Community Health Centers of Arkansas, Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, multiple faith-based groups and countless other organizations. So while the challenges are many, so are the helping hands.

We look forward to working with these and other organizations on a Rural Health Summit in 2017. We’ll have more to share about the summit in this space as it draws closer.

In the meantime, to learn more about Rural Health Day and national rural health concerns and efforts, you can visit this page on the National Organization of State Rural Health Offices site. To learn more about what is going on locally, the Office of Rural Health and Primary Care-produced State Rural Health Plan 2015-2020 is a good place to start. Above all else, take a moment to recognize the many health care issues faced by rural communities, celebrate the progress made so far and appreciate the tireless efforts by so many groups to make sure our rural neighbors receive the health care and support they deserve.      

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Fair play

A trip to the playground — hurtling down the rocket slide, soaring on the swing set, making yourself dizzy on the merry-go-round. For children in America, it’s a quintessential part of childhood, right? Right up there with refusing to eat your peas. The experience builds social bonds, encourages creativity and, of course, provides an exhilarating outlet for fun.

I’ll bet there is a good chance just reading those words conjured up one of your own playground memories — maybe a recent trip with your children or a recollection from your own childhood.

Some children, however, face challenges — through no fault of their own or of their parents — that make a traditionally designed playground something much less than a pursuit of unbridled enthusiasm. For example, children with disabilities or mobility impairments may be excluded because of accessibility or equipment issues. Or, perhaps, they have a parent or guardian who is confined to a wheelchair. These children not only lose the fun and social experiences that playgrounds bring, they miss the physical and mental health benefits that an active lifestyle provides.

The city of Bryant is hoping to remove those barriers, so that all of its citizens will be able to use the playground and take their children to the playground. In 2017, they plan to commence construction of a new universally designed, fully inclusive playground at Wilbur D. Mills Park — an 80-acre city park originally built in the early 1970s. The current equipment will be replaced with inclusive equipment that will allow all children to play and interact together (the current equipment, incidentally, will be repurposed in another park that doesn’t have a playground).

Renderings of new playground equipment at Mills Park

“Mills Park is a very important and historical park for Bryant,” Mayor Jill Dabbs said. “It’s filled with people every day and functions the way you want a park to function. So, it is already a healthy, active park … and it makes sense to invest in it and put this playground there.”

The project is far more than adding wheelchair access points to an existing playground. So, you may ask, how does a playground that is universally inclusive differ from a playground that is accessible? Well, Inspiring Play magazine describes it thusly: “An inclusive playground takes into account not just the physical equipment and tactics … it embraces the philosophy that children and adults of ALL abilities benefit immensely from being able to play and interact together. These types of playgrounds take into account children with physical disabilities as well as special needs or developmental disabilities.”

For example, the inclusive playground at Mills Park will be broken into three stations organized by age group. At each station, there will be playground equipment with ramps that allow access to everyone — including children, or their guardians, in wheelchairs.

“What that means is, (anyone) that is bound to a wheelchair will have the ability to enter and exit the playground equipment without ever having to leave that chair, unless they want to (to use the slide for example),” said Spencer McCorkel, assistant director of parks for the City of Bryant. “And that’s the point. This playground will accommodate any person from start to finish.”

Bryant’s commitment to providing a public space for all children to be active also coincides with the objectives of Healthy Active Arkansas (HAA). The statewide, 10-year framework – which Dabbs helped shape through her participation in planning summits put on by the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute – launched in 2015 and was designed to improve nutrition, reduce obesity and other health issues, and broadly encourage and enable healthier lifestyles in Arkansas. Specifically, one of the nine priority areas that make up the HAA framework, Physical and Built Environment, urges stakeholders “to create livable places that improve mobility, availability and access within the community where they live, work and play.”

Casey Covington of Metroplan is the team lead for HAA’s Physical and Built Environment priority area. He recently praised Bryant’s commitment to this inclusive playground.

“We want to make sure that all our kids, including those with disabilities, have a place where they can be physically active while also reaping the social benefits that public spaces offer,” he said. “If someone is active at an early age, then their chances of maintaining an active lifestyle is significantly better.”

Parks Director Chris Treat said that depending on the amount of funding available at the start of the project, the city is hoping to complete the project in one phase by the end of 2017 — although he said they are prepared to phase it in over time, if necessary.

The city is still in the planning and fundraising stages for the new playground equipment, with part of the funding coming from reissued bonds. Of the $4 million designated to the Parks Department, $300,000 has been earmarked for the renovations at Mills Park. The total cost of the renovation is projected at $786,000, with the remainder to be raised through fundraising efforts with the assistance of the nonprofit Friends for Inclusive Parks (Everett Buick GMC in Bryant, for example, has already pledged $10,000). The city is also hopeful they will receive an additional $250,000 in grant funding.

The project has been in the works for approximately two years since the city was approached by community members such as Erin Gildner with Friends for Inclusive Parks. Dabbs says she is not aware of another park of this scale anywhere in the central Arkansas area, but that’s not what she will be most proud of when this project comes to fruition.

“The reason this opportunity is available is not because the local government said this is important, but because the people said it’s important, and that is when you get the best projects,” she said. “This particular project just encourages more activity in an already-active place, and it will be a park that people from all over the state will come and visit — a place that parents can seek out to have that normal playground experience, regardless of their child’s abilities.

“I think when people — no matter what their abilities are — are given the opportunity to become their best person, it benefits them and their communities long term in every way.”

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Let's talk about goats

By all accounts, the inaugural Arkansas Goat Festival in Perryville, held earlier this month, was a smashing success. And really, how could it not have been? There were goats on parade. People in goat costumes. Goats in people costumes. And all other sorts of things goat.

We've gotten to know festival organizer Sarah French, co-owner of Crescent Creek Farm, through her involvement in the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute's Uncommon Communities initiative. We touched base with Sarah for a post-Goat Festival check-in.

Q: I know this idea was sparked from the Uncommon Communities initiative, but how exactly did it come about?

A: Liz van Dalsem and I were talking about events for "Saturday on the square," and I thought, "how much fun would it be to have a goat parade? Oh! Oh! What if the goats were in costumes? And we could have goat X and goat Y," and it grew from there.

Q: What were your expectations for this year’s event, and were those expectations met?

A: I thought this project was pretty audacious on so many levels, and "expectations" isn't the right word to describe it - I would call them hopes. And since I had no precedent to judge anything on, I could only go based on social media and face-to-face feedback I got. I really just hoped people would come. And people came. I felt like 500 people would have been "successful" and we more than doubled that ( coincidentally, we also doubled the population of Perryville for the day!) . I was very relieved and thrilled that the buzz on social media actually did translate into people getting in their cars and making the drive. So I guess the answer to your question is yes.

Q: What were your favorite moments or “snapshots” from the event?

A: That day is mostly a blur for me, but seeing all the people and so much energy and happy attendees and GOATS IN COSTUMES ... dreams do come true! 

Q: How do you see the event expanding next year?

A: We have lots of ideas for next year, some new additions to the lineup and some retouching of what we did this year. I don't have details on how it will expand, but we know more now than we did before and it's only going to be better in 2017.

Q: How can Perry County capitalize on the success of this event?

A: There has been talk (not necessarily in official circles, but talk none the less) of making a goat-play structure at the city park. Like some cities have dog parks. We could have the only goat park in the country. So I do hope there is movement on that, and I will support it any way I can. Now that it's clear people will actually come, we can position ourselves to be ready for tourists, to advertise how fun and family-friendly we are, to entertain goat lovers from all over the country!

Q: Any details you can share about next year's event?

A: I don't have much information to offer, except to please block your calendars for the first Saturday of October, 2017. The "Second Annual" Arkansas Goat Festival will be Oct. 7, 2017. This time, we will have a committee, and we'll start planning in January instead of August! This gives me great optimism for a bigger, better, more well-fed event.

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Creating a culture of cooperation in Conway County

It was 1996 when Dr. Vaughn Grisham first came to Conway County. He came at the behest of Barry McKuin, then of the Chamber of Commerce, now on the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute board, having heard Vaughn speak on his belief that community development precedes and works in tandem with economic development. That partnership was prophetic as it helped prepare Conway County in facing some of its most significant economic challenges with the loss of a number of major employers.

Fade to 2016 and Dr. Grisham has returned. Working in partnership with the Institute, Breakthrough Solutions and UALR’s Institute of Government, Vaughn helped develop the curriculum for the Uncommon Communities initiative working to improve the quality of life and economic climate in Conway, Pope, Perry, Van Buren and Yell counties.

2016 also brings with it the return of Leadership Conway County. Dormant for about a decade, participating in the initiative and working again with Dr. Grisham via the Uncommon Communities initiative inspired a group of leaders to decide that resurrecting Leadership Conway County is a necessary step in preparing the county for 21st century economic development.

Kickoff began in September and will continue monthly for nine sessions, including an overnight retreat. The session topics include: Teambuilding, Change, Group Dynamics, Diversity, Leadership Development, Ethics, Historical Perspective of Morrilton and Conway County, infrastructure tour, community development and trust building, economic tours, and a poverty simulation followed by the graduation ceremony.

The Morrilton Area Chamber of Commerce is leading the way in producing the updated program. Col. Joe Dowdy, USMC (Ret.) will be the keynote speaker at both the fall chamber banquet as well as the facilitator of the session on leadership. Col. Dowdy spoke at the kickoff of Year I of Uncommon Communities, and his powerful message was key in reminding the core committee how important leadership development is to community improvement.

More information about Leadership Conway County is available on the Morrilton Area Chamber of Commerce website.

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Annual meeting highlights opportunities and emerging trends in forestry

I attended the Arkansas Forestry Association’s (AFA) annual meeting held earlier this month in Fayetteville. Since 1945, the annual meeting has brought together professional foresters, private landowners, educators and forest researchers to exchange information on best practices and learn about the latest research and new trends in the industry. This year’s meeting unveiled growing opportunities for Arkansas’ economy and identified issues and trends affecting our greatest resources: forest and water.

Through a series of panel discussions and a riveting keynote from Tom Martin of the American Forest Foundation, participants engaged deeply in discussing the successes and challenges that affect our forest and timber industry. 

Tom Martin, executive director of the American Forest Foundation, formally kicked off the meeting by leading a call-to-action to educate the next generation by continuing to invest and collaborate in developing powerful stories that illustrate the social, economic and environmental benefits of using wood products. Martin highlighted a few policy initiatives his foundation is advocating, including the Timber Innovation Act and increased funding for wildlife management practices. Martin encouraged participants to actively engage in legislative outreach in order to educate their local officials on the significant contributions and strides the forest industry has made.

While we know forests play a critical role in both our economy and environment, did you know that for every dollar invested in forest management, $27 is saved to treat drinking water? Catherine Weisman with the U.S. Endowment for Forests and Communities showcased that through the Southeastern Partnership for Forestry and Water Quality. Arkansas is playing a critical role in creating clean, well-managed, healthy forests to benefit drinking water and local economies. The Southeastern Partnership is an innovative partnership among several states, including Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina and Texas. These states forestry sector leaders and water utilities work together to answer the call to address various threats, such as population growth, climate change, timber markets and invasive species.

At standing room only, representatives from Canfor, Interfor and West Fraser joined a panel discussion to discuss why international companies are choosing Arkansas to invest. Due to the mountain pine beetle infestation and other factors, these three Canadian companies were attracted to Arkansas for its Southern Yellow Pine and workforce. As the housing sector continues to grow in the United States, these companies expressed an interest in expansion over the next few years in the South. Arkansas and these companies will need to prepare its workforce to meet these demands.

The meeting concluded with a unique showcase of AFA award winners and their contributions to the state. The awards ceremony was an illustration of the many impressive on-the-ground impacts that are a result of strong partnerships, innovation and thoughtful leadership from private owners and volunteers. It was remarkable to witness the Earl T. Smith family representing three generations accept their award for Tree Farmer of the Year and Lee Anne Fitzgerald discuss how she works with hundreds of volunteers in the Central Arkansas Log A Load For Kids program to raise more than $8 million for Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

The family legacies represented in the room were powerful, and the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute is excited to begin working with leaders to focus on advances in the forestry sector as well as challenging issues facing the industry. As such, we will offer a landowners business workshop Thursday, March 9, 2017. The workshop, representing a partnership with Mississippi State University’s Natural Resource Enterprise program and the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension, will inform owners of timber land about various income diversification opportunities. For more information, follow the link or contact me at sevans@uawri.org.

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Asking the big questions

“Are you sure this is going to mean something to them?” The question from my boss, Dr. Marta Loyd, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s executive director, was a search for reassurance more than it was an invitation for me to offer an opinion. She asked after showing me a final draft of a speech she was preparing to deliver last week.

“Absolutely,” I say, smiling.

She, like other humble people, has a hard time seeing herself as inspiring. We who have worked with and for her know better, and now a number of central Arkansas businesswomen know, too.

Marta (to her staff she is always Marta … Dr. Loyd is a title she’s proud of but not one she expects people close to her to use)  was the keynote speaker at last week’s Women in Business luncheon, hosted annually by the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. She was asked to speak when Chamber officials learned about her story and recognized the power behind it.

Marta has accomplished a lot in her life, both personally and professionally. For 17 years, she was instrumental in the growth of the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith, helping the school blossom from a solid community college to, arguably, western Arkansas’ greatest educational resource. She served 12 of those years as vice chancellor for university advancement, raising tens of millions of dollars that served to fund the university’s expansion and helped hundreds of students have opportunities in higher education that would not otherwise be available to them.

That part about the students, that’s where Marta really lights up.

“Back when I was at the University, every time we’d go out to eat in Fort Smith, I’d ask our waiter or waitress what their plans were for their education,” she says. “A number of times, they’d tell me, ‘I’d like to go to school, but I just can’t afford it.’ And I’d give them my business card and tell them to come see me and I’d help them figure out how to make it work.

“It embarrassed the heck out of my kids when I’d do that, but it was always uplifting when those young people would call for an appointment and enroll in college.”

I’ve heard that story from Marta a number of times now, and it doesn’t get old. It’s a microcosm of who she is.

That desire to help people has always been there, but her career goals shifted pretty distinctly in her mid-30s.

“I put very little serious thought into my future when I was young,” she told the packed house at the Women in Business luncheon last week. “I wanted to be a dental hygienist because I could work part-time, make a good wage, and be a wife and mother. I accomplished all of that by the age of 26.”

She realized that while dental hygiene is a fine career path, she was meant for something else.

Her opportunity to step into higher education came when Westark College (now UA-Fort Smith) was hiring a part-time continuing education program coordinator. The job requirements were a bachelor’s degree and “organizational experience.”

Citing her organizational experience from church committees and the school PTA, Marta got the job. Not too long after, she was approached about helping to start a dental hygiene school at the college. She took that on for no extra pay, but proved herself and made connections with key people in the college’s administration.

Along the way, the University earned her loyalty by giving her an opportunity to stay home and care for her son after he was involved in an accident that almost claimed one of his eyes. Marta had to take off two weeks to care for him, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. It fell right when she was supposed to finish and submit a key application for the new dental hygiene school, and her taking off the two weeks meant a six-month delay in the project.

But the college’s president at the time, Joel Stubblefield, didn’t hesitate in telling Marta to take the time off.

“You do what you need to do for your son and don’t worry about this until you’re ready to come back,” he told her.

She’s never forgotten that. In her own words, Marta determined then “that if I ever became a leader, I would do all I could to make sure people didn’t have to choose between work and family.”

After returning to work and successfully starting the dental hygiene school, Marta was hired to work in development. The university’s vice chancellor for university advancement at the time, Dr. Carolyn Moore, brought Marta under her wing, promising her she would teach her everything she knew about development and that someday Marta could take her job. Dr. Moore also encouraged Marta to pursue advanced degrees, first her master’s in educational leadership and then her doctorate in educational leadership and policy analysis.

Dr. Moore made good on her promise. When she left to pursue another opportunity, Marta was named as her replacement. She was Marta’s first true mentor, and their relationship framed how Marta has approached her work ever since.

“I have always looked for opportunities both to be mentored by others and to mentor other people myself,” Marta says.

I am among a long list of people who have benefited from Marta’s mentoring. It’s not just a sentiment with her, an abstract concept in which she expects people to learn by her example from afar. It’s a muscle she actively exercises. She builds time into her schedule for it and expects her mentees to do the same.

What that has done is create a unique kind of culture, first among her staff at UAFS and, for the past 2 ½ years, here at the Institute. It’s a culture where people aren’t afraid to make mistakes, so long as they learn from them. Where it’s understood that the good of the team always comes before the good of the individual. Where we all believe in the concept that Marta used to close her speech last week, which was a quote attributed to Frances Moore Lappé:

“If you expect to see the final results of your work, you simply have not asked a big enough question.”

Marta’s story is indeed inspiring, not simply because she has found success, not even simply because she proved that you can change directions in your career mid-stream and still accomplish a lot. Her story is most inspiring, to me, because of how she’s gone about her career. She is the type of Level 5 Leader that Jim Collins writes about. She leads with humility and by sticking to her values. It’s refreshing to see that a person like that can find such success, and it’s a privilege to be part of that story.

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Poised to lead Arkansas into a new era of innovation, Winrock International and Innovation Hub join forces

“Our challenge in the years ahead will be to adapt our agriculture, our government services, our health care system and our industry to our changing world without forsaking our values. In other words, let’s embrace the energy of change and all the opportunity it brings without forsaking our foundation. … My top priority is to grow the economy of this state, to create jobs, and for Arkansas to enter a time of sustained economic power and influence.” — Gov. Asa Hutchinson, during his Inaugural Address, January 13, 2015

When Gov. Hutchinson summarizes his vision for Arkansas, time and time again, he comes back to economic development and innovation. While our state as a whole is arguably playing catchup in these areas, two Arkansas-born nonprofits have recently joined forces to create a dynamic model of innovation that is poised to have statewide — as well as national and global — impact.

In June, Winrock International, an international development organization that traces its roots to a charitable endeavor established by Winthrop Rockefeller, and the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub announced they were combining. Warwick Sabin, executive director of the Innovation Hub, was named senior director of U.S. Programs at Winrock.

“Gov. Rockefeller wanted Arkansas to be a place where innovative solutions are developed and tested for the rest of the country and the world,” Sabin told me recently. “This is in line with that vision.

“Winrock is well established as an innovator in international development. The Hub has created new models of innovation that overlap and align with what Winrock is already doing.”

Sabin tells me that, as far as he knows, there is nothing exactly like the Innovation Hub anywhere. He said he traveled around the country to observe and learn from a variety of entrepreneur and maker spaces. For one, from the very beginning, the Innovation Hub has included programs not only for adults, but also young people, which is imperative from a talent-development perspective. But that’s not the only difference that stands out.

“The Innovation Hub is unique in that it combines maker, entrepreneur, art and design spaces … all in one place,” Sabin said. Additionally, “most of these (spaces around the country) are in the largest urban areas. We’re trying to bring this model into rural areas (in Arkansas).”

In fact, Sabin said he is excited about a project that Winrock will be unveiling soon in the Arkansas Delta. The venture, which has yet to be announced, will be one of the first opportunities to establish an example of how all the components of the Innovation Hub can be integrated into a set of solutions for rural communities. The effort, Sabin told me, is expected to “pilot new strategies for economic, workforce and rural development in the Delta.”

But the impact has the potential to resonate globally as part of Winrock’s international solutions. “Much of the work (of the Innovation Hub) is applicable to developing countries,” Sabin said, where there is a growing need “to do more with less.”

Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks at the Winrock International/Innovation Hub merger announcement.

The growing potential of this new collaboration has already generated excitement. Gov. Hutchinson spoke at the press conference in June when Winrock announced it was combining with the Innovation Hub. Here’s what Hutchinson had to say that day:

“This will spur real economic and community growth in our state and signals that Arkansas’ impact on the world will continue to grow. I’m especially intrigued by what this could mean in terms of workforce training, manufacturing, agriculture and, especially, the Arkansas knowledge industry.”

Already the Innovation Hub can point to the success of HubX Life Sciences, the state’s first privately funded health care accelerator program. The Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub partnered with Baptist Health, Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and The Iron Yard to attract seven innovative health care start-ups. The benefits, however, stretch far beyond the health care sector.

“We’re creating new models (that can benefit multiple sectors),” Sabin told me. “If successful, we’re going to change the face of community development and economic development in a huge part of our state.”

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Becoming baby-friendly

In an effort to improve mother/infant bonding, a handful of hospitals in Arkansas are adopting the Baby-Friendly hospital initiative.

You might be thinking, “Well, isn’t it a given that all hospitals would be baby friendly?”

I had that thought as well until I learned the meaning behind the effort. And it’s a touching one.

First, it’s important to understand the Healthy Active Arkansas initiative, of which the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute is a partner. The collaborative includes many leaders across the state to promote wellness and help fight obesity in the state, explains Juli McWhorter, chief nursing officer at Northwest Medical Center-Willow Creek Women’s Hospital.

“Promotion of breastfeeding is one of the major initiatives,” she says. “It is a very big deal for this collaborative, and they are so excited for us and the state of Arkansas.”

Willow Creek was the first hospital in the state to achieve national accolades for this breastfeeding initiative.

“We have always been ‘Baby-Friendly,’” says Sharif Omar, CEO of Northwest Health. “This designation simply affirms our commitment to the safest and highest quality care for our newborns and moms at both of the Northwest Health hospitals since Willow Creek was the first to receive this recognition a few months ago. We were thrilled when Willow Creek was the first hospital in Arkansas and are even more elated now that our second facility, Northwest Medical Center – Bentonville, is the second in the state.”

Baby-Friendly USA, Inc. is the U.S. authority for the implementation of the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (“BFHI”), a global program sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), according to a news release. The initiative encourages and recognizes hospitals and birthing centers that offer an optimal level of care for breastfeeding mothers and their babies. Based on the Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding, this prestigious international award recognizes birth facilities that offer breastfeeding mothers the information, confidence and skills needed to successfully initiate and continue breastfeeding their babies.

The Northwest Medical Center news release points out that there are more than 20,000 designated Baby-Friendly hospitals worldwide and only 364 active Baby-Friendly centers in the United States.

The BFHI assists hospitals in giving all mothers the information, confidence and skills necessary to successfully initiate and continue breastfeeding their babies or feeding formula safely, and gives special recognition to hospitals that have done so.

The designation is given after a rigorous on-site survey is completed. It is maintained by continuing to practice the Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding.

From a nurse’s standpoint, McWhorter says this effort helps improve mother-infant bonding by initiating the practice skin-to-skin contact.

“The World Health Organization recommends newborns spend the first hour of life in a skin-to-skin contact,” she says.

Benefits of this practice include better thermoregulation in the infant, decreased respiratory rate, blood glucose control, greater infant comfort and less infant crying. This practice also improves breastfeeding outcomes, McWhorter notes.

In turn, the relationship between health provider and patient or new mothers is improved as well.

“We’re promoting patient/family-centered care by allowing mothers and infants to remain together immediately after birth regardless of type of delivery,” McWhorter says.

“This helps support the mother in establishing breastfeeding through education and we’re offering breastfeeding support after discharge through outpatient visits and breastfeeding support groups.”

Overall, “we hope to improve mother and infant bonding and to improve patient outcomes by educating mothers of the benefits of breastfeeding for both the mother and her newborn.”

Baptist Health is another hospital that is going baby-friendly. Jessiaca Donahue is an RN IBCLC Certified Lactation consultant at the Little Rock medical center. She is also the breastfeeding team lead for Healthy Active Arkansas. She explains that mothers who deliver their baby in a baby-friendly facility can be assured that all policies and procedures in place will support their feeding choice and that all staff is on board to help her be successful. 

“Becoming a baby-friendly facility is a comprehensive, detailed and thorough journey toward excellence in providing evidence-based maternity care with the goal of achieving optimal infant feeding outcomes and mother/baby bonding,” Donahue says.

“It compels facilities to examine, challenge and modify longstanding policies and procedures. It requires training and skill building among all levels of staff. It entails implementing audit processes to assure quality in all aspects of maternity care operations. The journey is exciting, challenging and worth it. It creates opportunities to develop high performance work teams and build leadership skills among staff, promotes employee pride, enhances patient satisfaction and improves health outcomes.”

At Baptist, there is Baby Friendly Committee in place, Donahue adds. It is on track to be awarded the Baby-Friendly certification by next year. Feedback, ideas and comments are welcome, she says. Contact her at 501.202.7378 or Jessica.donahue@baptist-health.org for more information. You can also keep up with Baptist Health on Facebook for the latest developments.

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