Arkansas man con­tin­ues projects to honor late wife

The Saline Courier Weekend - - NEWS - By Ja­dyn Wat­son-fisher South­west Times Record

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.

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