Arkansas man continues projects to honor late wife
FORT SMITH — In the arms of a burly, bearded River Valley resident was a white wallaby named Walter. He’s the “animal ambassador” and guest of honor for students learning about marsupials and receiving free books.
J.R. Wheeler of Greenwood is proud to host the “Wild About Reading” program at local elementary schools, particularly those in smaller districts who may have more students living in poverty.
“You touch more kids that way,” Wheeler told the
Southwest Times Record (Fort Smith).
It’s just one of the ways the father of two and animal lover continues to honor his late wife, Kristen, who died of breast cancer in February.
Like a lot of things, the
Wild About Reading program was inspired by something small— by trying to make one child feel seen and give him something completely his own.
Wheeler said Kristen was a teacher who tended to get what most would consider problem students. One in particular was about to be sent to Belle Point Alternative Center due to grades and behavior. His wife, however, saw past the issues.
She asked the student how she could help him be successful.
“Ms. Wheeler, I want something that’s mine,” Wheeler recalled his wife telling him.
The two cut a deal. If he behaved well and worked hard every week, Kristen would buy him a book. Wheeler said his wife’s simple act of kindness made a difference. Her student went from failing and being someone most would look down upon to being successful in the classroom and getting A’s.
Kristen’s one question made all the difference and spurred an idea for something even bigger.
Wheeler has been a part of the zoo life for as long as his own, traveling around the country with his dad who helped design the facilities all around the United States.
While it wasn’t always a glamorous life, Wheeler’s love for animals came naturally and is eventually why he decided to create a zoo.
Wheeler likened his idea to the Tulsa Zoo — “a legit facility that this area can be proud of” — not just some small livestock farm or petting zoo.
Kristen was a huge supporter of the project and her husband, helping every step of the way. Then, she got sick.
Wheeler said the cancer was all over Kristen’s body when it was discovered two years ago, so all their plans for a Greenwood zoo were put on hold to focus on her health.
The community rallied behind the Wheeler family as Kristen received chemotherapy and underwent several surgeries, hoping her health would improve and she could continue with the zoo and book program she was passionate about.
Kristen died Feb. 4, leaving behind Wheeler and their two children. Even in her sickness and eventual passing, Wheeler said his wife continued to think about others.
She even requested people to donate money toward the book program and park.
Approximately $500,000 worth of work and supplies has been invested into the park thus far, and there’s a long way to go, but Wheeler isn’t complaining.
“It was a blessing from God that everything worked out the way it did,” Wheeler said, noting how the land, its price and help from companies have helped with the construction.
Even with the “huge support” from the community, Wheeler said it’s hard to compete for limited funds when there are also local schools, other animal facilities and even the U.S. Marshals Museum.
“We’re not a multimilliondollar family, so every extra dime we get, it goes to the park,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said he hopes to have the facility open within two years.
Not every kid who receives a book will appreciate it, and Wheeler knows it. Helping out those 10 kids who might not have anything of their own, however, makes all the effort, time and money spent more than worth it.
Wheeler said most schools receive 200 to 400 books each visit, though Waldron recently received 800.
“Thank you for coming to Waldron Elementary today,” wrote Waldron resident
Alyssa Dye on the Roo Doo’s Facebook page. “I was in the school for a meeting and stopped in to watch a tiny bit of your show. They (were) wowed, just like us adults. Thank you.”
Charleston Elementary also recently received a visit from Wheeler. Elementary Media Specialist Amy Womack said she saw the Facebook page and contacted Wheeler, and his friend at the school helped organize the visit.
“Our kids were really excited to hear that he was going to be coming. They anxiously looked forward to him,” said Amy Womack, Charleston Elementary School media specialist. “They were happy to get their free books. They enjoyed seeing Walter the wallaby and learning about wallabies and marsupials.”
Wheeler said he wishes to visit some of the larger districts, but it’s not financially feasible.
“It comes out of our pocket,” Wheeler said. “We do everything on our own.”
It’s a numbers game, but he’s committed to helping as many students as possible. It’s what Kristen would’ve wanted.
A popular saying goes,
“the same boiling water that softens the potato hardens the egg. It’s about what you’re made of not the circumstances.”
Wheeler had every reason to let life harden him. He lost his wife to cancer that spread aggressively through her whole body. He watched the woman he considered his best friend fight through severe pain. He’s now a single father and his kids lost their mother. He’s carrying on a vision that once belonged to two people.
Most people probably wouldn’t blame him for ending the book program and not finishing the park. The Wheelers have been through more than their fair share of pain.
His heart is still soft, though. Wheeler is doing everything for Kristen, though, all the people they wanted to impact together.
Her camp curriculum, educational programming to go into the park and her dream won’t be lost.
“(She) had a passion for kids, so we wanted to help kids and their families get involved outside,” Wheeler said.