Death brings new life
At last a universal solvent has been discovered for the tears of grief shed over the death of a child, in this case Freeman Ellis Staley, who was nine months old when he died of a lung disease in 2016.
Now the mention of his name brings laughter instead of tears to the faces of his mother and father, Misti and Will Staley of Helena-West Helena, the small town in the Arkansas Delta where they live with Clara, their German shepherd-collie mix. For the Staleys have found a way to give little Freeman’s story a happier ending. And by turning sentimentality into a constructive sentiment, they’ve benefited the kids of all ages in their town and beyond by providing them with the Freeman Ellis Staley playground. So come, let us cross the river and rest under the shade of the tall trees that provide a welcoming canopy for all who enter there.
The Staleys have drowned their sorrow in the kind of work that now occupies both of them: He cofounded a non-profit graphic design firm called Thrive to attract new investment to their town, which can certainly use it. With a poverty rate of 34.7 percent, Helena-West Helena lost about half of its population since 1950. But where there’s hope, there’s life. And what began as a master’s thesis dreamed up by Will and a friend at the Kansas City Art Institute now has blossomed into a non-profit operation that’s doing its part to re-invigorate the storied old river town.
And what began as a dream of a park and playground has become a reality. “I’ll walk down there once, twice, three times a day,” says 35-yearold Misti with a mother’s pride. “I just talk with the families and talk with the kids.” And, yes, she doesn’t mind letting them know the indispensable role she’s played in the town’s new attraction for young and old.
“After Freeman passed away,” she now recalls, “the idea came up, ‘Why don’t we do a playground in his memory?’ It’s something that would bring a lot of joy to our neighborhood and would also be a great way to remember Freeman.” And it is. The distance between idea and reality may not prove far at all when the Staleys tackle a project. With a lot of help from their friends, family and good people here and there in this naturally generous and feeling state.
As a Southerner named William Faulkner once commented, in these parts the past isn’t forgotten; it’s not even past. The preacher at a service in grateful memory for little Freeman’s all too brief life mentioned that the Staleys had thought about building a playground in their child’s ever green memory, and the money began to roll in. “The whole time Freeman was sick,” Will Staley says, “I felt like our entire city was embracing us. For the majority of the city to come together and make this thing was so perfect. This community loves its members.” Talk about Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the beloved community, Helena-West Helena has been doing its part to fulfill it.
As vice-chairman of the Helena Health Foundation Bettye Hendrix puts it: “It’s a beautiful playground. I think it is a great benefit to the community. It’s being used by children of all ages. It’s fantastic for the handicapped children and is a great asset for all of the children in Phillips County.”