Death brings new life

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PERSPECTIVE - PAUL GREEN­BERG Paul Green­berg is the Pulitzer Prizewin­ning ed­i­to­rial writer and colum­nist for the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette.

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.”

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