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Many feared their well-loved school would be neglected and left for ruin, especially the unique, “Hoosier”-style gymnasium. The DeValls Bluff gym is one that takes you back in time. After climbing the wooden stairs to the top of the bleachers and looking down at the floor, you feel like you’re in the 1950’s and the boys below should be wearing high-top Converses and shorts that go up to mid-thigh. No one wanted to see this sentimental place abandoned.
So when the school buildings went up for auction, a few passionate community members seized the opportunity to make sure that didn’t happen.
Allen Childress, a business owner you’ll likely find in overalls and work boots, purchased the gym in hopes of hosting youth programs for the area’s kids and teens. He purchased the building for a minuscule $3,000, which he calls a “blessing from God” and said he feels he has a responsibility to use it to serve others. In the years since, the gym has evolved into a full-fledged community outreach center. It hosts weekly youth nights, rehabilitation meetings for those overcoming addictions, mentoring programs and more. It also houses a food bank, which has become a lifeline for an area that struggles economically. Once a month, volunteers assemble at the gym to distribute boxes of food to anyone from Prairie County who shows up and is in need. Anywhere from 150-200 boxes are given out on these days. But the help doesn’t stop after that one Saturday a month. According to Childress, people show up every day that have lost their jobs or are in need for some reason. The gym has also become an emergency shelter. “We put up anybody I see,” he said. Childress has turned the gym’s old locker rooms and offices into bunk rooms, and they’re open to anyone who needs them. “If they’re on (Highway) 70 and we see ‘em, we’re going to put ‘em up and feed ‘em and wash their clothes,” he said.
Though Childress owns a pest control company in Little Rock, he has moved his office to the gym in DeValls Bluff because it seems to be where the majority of his time and attention is needed. “It stays real, real busy,” he said. “I’m tired. But it’s the kind of tired I love.” Though Childress makes no money from his endeavors at the gym, he said he’s paid in relationships. “You just cannot fathom the relationships and the opportunities I’ve had to pray with people,” he said. “I just think that’s what we’re called to do.”
DeValls Bluff Wild Game Supper
Another of the school’s cherished facilities that was auctioned off was the auditorium. The same auditorium where many school assemblies were held and graduates walked the stage in their caps and gowns is now the home to a monthly movie night, an annual pageant, a museum and more. The Arnold Family Foundation, founded by a local family to promote arts and entertainment in the Delta, purchased the building with great vision for what it could become. “We thought our old school could be repurposed and be used to serve the community in some capacity,” said Curtis Arnold, director of the foundation. “We thought, ‘this doesn’t have to be the end as we know it.’” The foundation installed state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment in the auditorium and now hosts free monthly movies for the community called “Movies at the Center.” The monthly movies even include free popcorn. “We just wanted people to have that kind of experience without driving an hour to Little Rock and without forking out a small fortune,” Arnold said.
Though classes are not in session, the list of activities and events going on the DeValls Bluff campus is endless. Nearly every week there is something: a wild game supper, a festival, a donkey basketball game, a wrestling match – you name it. Caring citizens like Childress, Arnold, and many others work together to keep this community thriving and well. Yes, you may drive down Main Street and see businesses that are closed and windows boarded up. But just turn down by the school and you’ll see life and action. You’ll see service and community. And while you’re there, go ahead and walk in the gym. You’ll leave with a stomach full of food and a heart full of hope. And you’ll get a glimpse of a new era in DeValls Bluff.
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