The Department of Human Services Division of Children and Family Services presented a National Adoption Month Celebration on the steps of the State Capitol in early November 2016.
That particular day the sun was bright, temperature ideal, but the wind gusts were brisk.
The winds presented a problem as the 500 t-shirts situated across the steps – which symbolized the number of youth in the state’s foster care system who were awaiting adoption – were being tossed around.
Someone had to come up with an immediate solution to save a poignant visual.
To the rescue was Keith Metz.
A DCFS Public Information Specialist, Metz led a crusade to place deer corn inside small plastic bags. The bags were then strategically placed on the shirts, as a means to keep them weighed down.
“I love that he was willing to think outside the box, placing the t-shirts on the capitol steps,” said Christie Erwin, executive director of Project Zero.
Metz’s invaluable contributions are nothing new. He’s become known for being a selfless “Jack of All Trades,” especially when working on behalf of a person in need. He coordinates multiple fundraisers throughout the year – selling everything from popcorn and candy to snow cones and sandwiches – which culminate in the Holiday Bazaar, an all-day sale and auction that raises hundreds of dollars. All proceeds go to buy gift cards for teens in foster care.
“Keith is an advocate – both for families and for caseworkers – and his passion for protecting and uplifting the vulnerable is ever present in his daily work,” said Greg Moore, formerly of the DCFS Service Quality and Practice Improvement Unit. “Many people within the agency know Keith from his work with DCFS fundraisers and the Holiday Bazaar, but folks may not realize that all of those things are ‘extras’ and go well beyond his regular job duties.”
BEING A VOICE
Metz began working with DHS as a contractor in 1997 and became an official DHS employee in 2008. Over the years, one thing he has enjoyed immensely is building ties with a wide variety of people.
“I’ve always liked travelling to the county offices to do case reviews, deliver gifts and other things. I enjoy getting to know the staff across the state and the people they serve in their communities,” he said. “You don’t know what the frontline folks deal with until you spend some time in their shoes. I always loved soaking in all the information and wisdom they have.”
The information Metz receives, along with the connections he makes, help him be a better advocate for DCFS and a voice for employees in the field.
“Those employees have always encouraged me to report exactly what they do and how they do it,” he said. “In my old role, I’d share what did or didn’t work in the field with people in the Central Office, trying to make everyone aware of what the county offices deal with. That has always been a high priority for me. I feel like I owe it to the workers.”
His bigheartedness has not gone unnoticed.
“From his family, to his job, to his volunteerism, helping to raise money and awareness for children in foster care, Keith goes out of his way to help others,” said Moore. “He shows up even when it’s not easy and puts his best foot forward.”
TURNING HEARTBREAK INTO MOTIVATION, UNDERSTANDING
Metz’s work ethic and kindness is praised by his peers and superiors, but the compassion he has for children in difficult situations is amplified due to his household overcoming a heartbreaking ordeal.
“Several years ago my stepdaughter was being sexually abused by her biological dad during his court-ordered visitations,” he somberly acknowledged. “That’s when this became more than a job for me. All of a sudden, the numbers I’d been reporting … my daughter was one of those numbers. That changed things for me.”
How did Metz and his family respond?
“My first reaction was utter shock which quickly turned to anger,” he answered. “I then tried to figure out what to do to get the help that she needed.
“I felt like a fool for not seeing the signs of child sexual abuse that I had been trained to see,” Metz said. “There was guilt for allowing her to go back so many times thinking of what she had to endure. So that situation definitely changed this job for me.”
DCFS aims to disclose the needs of children by using more than statistics. The belief is that most people relate to life situations better than numerical figures. Metz is wholeheartedly on board with the DCFS approach to providing information.
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“We need to humanize what we do. These are people. These are families. These are children,” Metz explained. “I didn’t like the way that it was made real to me, but in hindsight I appreciate what I learned. We need to not see the workers, kids, moms, and dads as just numbers on a spreadsheet. They must all be treated as real people.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
In October 2016, Metz’s duties changed when he was named DCFS Public Information Specialist. Metz still does a lot of what he’s excelled at for years, but now he’s responsible for handling numerous communications duties for DCFS as well. That includes coordinating special events, such as the Rally to Prevent Child Abuse Wednesday, April 19 at 10:30 a.m. on the steps of the State Capitol, and supporting similar events across the state.
“Everything that we do at DHS is about helping people. That common thread has run through every role I’ve had here. I’ve been fortunate to stand beside some amazing frontline and support staff from all across this state,” he said. “My new role as a member of the communications team allows me to champion those efforts and those wonderful people and share what we do as an agency in a much more comprehensive and impactful manner.”
Metz’s commitment to DHS is his way of making Arkansas a better place to reside.
“Getting a chance to sit down with kids, discuss things and learn how their day went and helping them have a moment when someone shows they care about them … that’s important.”
His dedication and ingenuity often astonishes Moore.
“From reviewing cases and working with caseworkers to improve performance, to collecting donations for – and delivering – Christmas gifts to foster children, I’ve watched Keith traverse the state and put in long hours as he works to help DCFS achieve its mission,” he said. “We are lucky to have him fighting the good fight for Arkansas families.”
(It is for all of these reasons that Keith Metz was nominated and featured for the Living the Mission series at DHS, which focuses on individuals who go above and beyond their typical functions. If you know someone who lives the mission of DHS and should be featured for the Living the Mission series, contact Kev Moyè at email@example.com.)
Employee Spent Nights Baking Lollipops for Foster Care Christmas Fund
Twyla Smith began working as an administrative specialist with the DHS Division of Children and Family Services just over a year ago. She has a long history of public service – from Meals on Wheels to being the PTA president at her son’s school. So when she heard that DCFS staffers work throughout the year to raise money to buy gifts for children in foster care, Twyla knew she had something to contribute.
“I may only do paperwork as a DHS employee, but the foster kids’ Christmas fund was screaming my name,” Twyla said recently. So in February, Twyla spent every night after work for a week and a full weekend baking 400 chocolate lollipops for a Valentine’s Day sale in the DHS central office complex.
The sale raised more than $450 for the Christmas fund. Twyla was thrilled.
“I’m not stopping with Valentine’s day lollipops,” she said. “I will continue to have lollipops at my desk keeping theme with the upcoming holidays as long as people will buy them with all the proceeds going to the fund.”
Photo: Twyla next to a stand full of chocolate lollipops during the Valentine’s Day sale.
Inspired by her past, Graham advocates for teens in foster care
By Kev Moyè
Stephanie Graham is on a mission to assure that no adolescent encounters the chaos she once experienced.
A Department of Human Services (DHS), Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) Child Youth Investigator for the Washington County office – Graham brings an aura of joy into each of her responsibilities.
A single name explains the reason why.
“I chose Sunny as my nickname because it represented the person I wanted to become,” said Graham, who made the decision at 17. “When I decided to change my life and be the person I wanted to be, I stopped hanging around my old friends and began meeting new people. That’s when I started to introduced myself as Sunny – instead of Stephanie.”
The name change is cathartic for Graham. However, by no means is she bitter about the past. The apt way to describe Graham’s outlook is: Inspired to make a difference.
Kristin Powers – Graham’s wife – describes how becoming a foster parent increased her spouse’s desire to be a positive presence in the community.
“Growing up, Sunny knew she’d want to assist kids who were in foster care,” said Powers, a program eligibility specialist for the Washington County office. “We were foster parents in California. We saw all the events geared toward younger kids. She wanted to make sure people didn’t forget the teens in foster care.”
Graham takes pride in every facet of her career, according to Washington County Investigations Supervisor, Tina Wood.
“She loves the job she does and her colleagues see it and strive to be just like her,” said Wood.
WHY SHE’S INSPIRED
Graham’s childhood was the antithesis of ideal. Her youth was marred by a horrific situation. However, it was during that stormy period when Graham established a goal to one day provide assistance for teens in foster care.
“I was a foster child in Washington state. Later in life I eventually became a foster parent in California. I know first-hand what the kids sometimes experience,” she somberly acknowledged.
Graham departed the custody of her adoptive parents prior to her 18th birthday. She got away from the situation thanks to a confidant from school. The comrade convinced her family to allow Graham to reside at their home.
Despite Graham fleeing the dangers of her adoptive residency, finding happiness remained a struggle. Though she was grateful for her new living arrangement, Graham was still unable to have the life of a typical teenager.
“I saved up money from working two jobs. I wanted to buy a car and also make a deposit on a studio apartment,” Graham said. “I was also attending a private school and had to pay for the remaining portion of the school year myself.”
MAKING A WAY
Steadily, Graham adapted and would graduate from high school. Afterward, she continued to make the most of a tough situation.
“I worked from about 5 a.m. to 11 then went home and slept for a few hours. When I got up I went to my second job and worked from about 5 p.m. to midnight,” she said. “It was actually easier to live this way than it was to live with my parents.
“My mother was physically and emotionally abusive. I was never really sure if or when I would be punished.”
Being a true optimist, Graham doesn’t dwell on yesteryear. Instead, she chooses to focus on life as an adult, and remain positive about what lies ahead.
“It’s better to live in what’s happening today than to invest time and energy in things I had no control over in my past,” said Graham – who on occasion still communicates with her siblings and mother.
For Graham, being focused on the present includes doing her best to protect the overall well-being of children in foster care.
“Sunny goes out of her way – no matter the time of day – to ensure that children are cared for and protected,” Wood stated.
ENJOYING THEIR HOLIDAY
Graham, the biological mother of two teenage boys, is a dedicated advocate for teens in foster care.
“We’re both products of the foster care system. Our experiences were completely different,” Powers said. “Everything she has done leading up to this job, has led to this career. It was simply about the pursuit of being able to help kids.”
Graham’s generosity never wavers. And there’s a particular time of the year that she invests even more into being an emblem of hope: Christmas.
Recognizing that teenagers in foster care are too often overlooked during the Christmas season, Graham established the Stockings for Teens program.
The project provides teenagers in the Washington County foster care system with gifts cards and other coveted items for Christmas.
“The community is really receptive to Stockings for Teens,” Powers said. “They want to make sure these kids aren’t forgotten.”
Stocking for Teens 2016 marked the second year of the endeavor. Over 50 stockings were provided, more than doubling the 2015 total. The stockings were filled by generous donors. Some individuals sponsored a specific teen and filled a stocking based on the provided wish list. Meanwhile, some Stockings for Teens advocates supplied items – such as gift cards – that could be used by any youth, regardless of their interests or gender.
The growth of Stockings for Teens is not a happenstance. Hard work and compassion are cornerstones of the program.
“I enjoy seeing the smiles and the gratitude the kids have when they receive their stockings,” Graham said. “The process of getting the names and their interests as well as coordinating volunteers and getting things delivered is difficult. But seeing a kid happy is worth it.”
Visit the official Stockings for Teens facebook page: www.facebook.com/stockingsforteens for additional information about the project. Info can also be gleaned by using the facebook hashtag of: #nwastockingsforteens .
A SOURCE OF HOPE
Graham wants people to understand that foster teens need a variety of love that’s too often not available.
“People tend to think of teens as kind of … lost. Or, there’s nothing they can do for them at this point of their life,” she said. “When people see a teen in foster care, many times the first thing somebody asks is: What’s wrong with them?
“It’s nothing wrong with them; it’s what their parents did. The challenge is to change the mentality from, ‘what’s wrong with them’ to ‘what can I do to help’.”
Graham’s passion is greatly appreciated.
“Sunny has made trips to the grocery store to get a foster child’s favorite cereal,” Wood says. “Sunny has stayed up all night in our office to watch kids and they all respond by wanting Sunny to be their primary caretaker.”
Graham – an alumna of Walden University – has learned to cope with the peaks and valleys that typically come with helping an adolescent who’s in state care.
“It’s a double-edged sword. It’s satisfying when she knows that a family has received help. But there are a lot of families that don’t – based on how the system works,” Powers said. “I know Sunny would love to do more. That’s what drew her to Stockings for Teens. Sunny wanted to do more and get other people involved in doing more as well.”
(It is for all of these reasons that Sunny Graham was nominated and featured for the Living the Mission series at DHS, which focuses on individuals who go above and beyond their typical functions. If you know someone who lives the mission of DHS and should be featured for the Living the Mission series, contact Kev Moyè at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
First-generation American finds serving less-fortunate rewarding
Maria Solis is a community change agent, making a positive impact in numerous ways.
“Maria is a public servant who inspires people and helps to bring out the best in everyone,” said Margarita Solorzano, director of the Hispanic Women’s Organization of Arkansas. Solis’ benevolence is accompanied by a spirited personality.
“Maria is a leader,” said Kathy Rushing, Department of Human Services (DHS) Washington County office Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education (DCCECE) family support specialist. “She’s good for team morale and has a very competitive spirit.”
To understand why Solis, a DHS Washington County office DCCECE family support specialist, is so compassionate and strong-willed, you have to journey back to her childhood in California.
A TOUGH SITUATION
Growing up in Southern California in the Los Angeles County city of South Montebello, Solis had to be resilient.
The second-oldest child of Mexican immigrants, she was the first-born American of her household. Solis’ family resided in an apartment that housed seven people. Outside their home, danger seemed to always be near.
“Our apartment complex was in the middle of gang violence and drug deals. Most of the families were on some sort of government assistance,” Solis said. “Many of the men that lived in our complex were members of a local gang.”
In the midst of chaos, danger – Solis’ parents were staunch disciplinarians. Unfortunately, Solis once received a grim lesson as to why her parents were so domineering.
“When I was 14, my best friend’s brother was shot and killed in their front door. He was only 13. It was gang-related,” Solis said. “My friend and I were in their restroom getting ready for our school dance when it happened. When the police arrived, it was like an animal had died. I heard one officer nonchalantly say to his detective, ‘It’s just a gang banger. No need for an investigation. We know what went down.’”
“As I waited for my dad and throughout the ride home, I cried – heavily,” Solis recalled. “I realized then that I did not want to be remembered as just another person in the streets.”
The murder was a terrifying ordeal. But sadly, some form of violence was common in the complex.
“Every day, gang members were at the front gate checking who came in. If the person was not known, they’d hold the individual at the gate until someone from the complex claimed them as a family member or friend,” she said. “I once witnessed gang members beat up a person for no apparent reason. They then made him apologize to us kids for having to witness him being beat on.”
The dangers of the apartment complex and having to perform several parental-like duties for her family often kept Solis from experiencing a traditional childhood.
“I grew up much faster than my peers,” she said. “While they were outside having fun, I was inside cooking meals for my siblings and my parents, who were still at work. At that time, it’s what I had to do.”
Solis’ parents championed hard work, but they also believed in generosity. Providing aid for Mexico natives who just arrived in South Montebello was the norm.
“We lived in a two-bedroom apartment. However, I can always remember having additional families living with us,” she said. “My father was the first to help any family that would immigrate to our area from Mexico.”
THE FAMILY GO-TO PERSON
Solis’ father migrated to the United States in 1976. Her mom brought the family over to join Mr. Trejo in 1978. A year later, Solis was born. As it turned out, she was the game-changer.
“Being a first-generation American, I was – and still am – the person someone will contact regarding anything that involves my parents,” she said. “I’ve been a family interpreter for as long as I can remember.”
Solis’ willingness to be active in the community was spurred by her father. Through his acts of kindness, she witnessed and experienced the power of charity.
“Weekends in our apartment complex were crazy, but everyone respected our family because my dad would do cookouts and invite the gang members over to eat,” Solis said. “Dad figured that if he took care of them, they would leave us alone. It worked. The gang members never offered drugs to either of my brothers or me.
“If there was any kind of confrontation between rival gangs, an influential member would stop by our apartment and encourage us to sleep on the floor that night because there may be some gun fire,” she said.
MOVING TO THE SOUTH
Solis survived the dangerous times. She graduated with honors from cosmetology school in July 1997, just a month after graduating from Montebello High School. Afterward, Solis was happy in California being a responsible adult. However, at the age of 26, Solis followed her parents, who relocated to Springdale.
Solis immediately became enamored with the topography of Northwest Arkansas and how the region was far less congested than Southern California.
“In California, I was always on the go,” she acknowledged. “So I’m glad this is where destiny brought me. I am proud to call Northwest Arkansas home.”
She may have been in a new environment, but the family obligations did not waver.
“I can recall a situation when I was at the Washington County DHS office to help my cousin interpret the ARKids application,” Solis said. “I learned that there were only two employees who spoke Spanish for a county that has a huge Hispanic population. That really surprised me.”
Solis’ initial Arkansas DHS encounter revealed to her that the Hispanic community was in need of assistance. Within a couple years, she was hired for a clerical position in the Division of County Operations (DCO) Washington County unit. However, she ultimately settled into her current role for DCCECE in 2013. It’s a duty the mother of two absolutely adores.
“I have been content as can be in this division trying to help families to be self-sufficient and become better people for our community,” she said.
Solorzano said, “In Montebello, Maria was exposed to a wide range of experiences and diversity. Additionally, Maria has a similar background to that of many families who have relocated to Northwest Arkansas. Her experiences have shaped her perspective on life in general.”
Wanting the best for all residents of Northwest Arkansas, Solis embraced several civic service endeavors.
“Maria is always eager to learn,” Rushing said. “Taking on projects is an opportunity for her to learn, grow and become the best version of herself.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN ARKANSAS
Upon arriving in Arkansas, Solis had already earned an associate’s degree in child development from East Los Angeles Community College. Solis later attained an associate’s degree in early childhood education from Northwest Arkansas Community College. She’s currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree from Arkansas State University (ASU) through its online program. Solis is also a regular contributor to the ASU online learning blog.
Despite being a mom, student and DHS employee, Solis never grows tired of serving, regardless of the capacity.
“I try to involve myself in as many community activities as I can, especially if they’re associated with my children,” she said. “Being a DHS employee has made a positive impact in my life.”
Rushing said, “Maria loves her duties for DCCECE, and this job gives her the opportunity to help people become their best.”
In regard to community outreach, Solis’ involvements include being a Hispanic Women’s Organization of Arkansas (HWOA) committee member, overseeing the 2017 NWA Cinco De Mayo Festival, coordinating interpreter duties for the Hispanic community to both the Springdale School District and DHS, conducting parenting classes for Spanish-speaking residents for the Springdale Coordinated School Health program, serving on the American Heart Association “Vestido Rojo” campaign and the 2017 Community Outreach FBI Citizens Academy, and managing a youth soccer team.
“If I change one child I have done my job,” Solis said. “If I help one family strive to pursue their goals, I have done my job.”
Overall, Solis’ huge capacity and desire to serve her fellow man and perseverance to achieve epitomizes the “American Dream.”
“Maria is a highly motivated person who has worked hard to achieve success,” Solorzano said. “She always brings a positive energy that spreads among those who are working around her.”
(It is for all of these reasons that Maria Solis was nominated and featured for the Living the Mission series at DHS, which focuses on individuals who go above and beyond their typical functions. If you know someone who lives the mission of DHS and should be featured for the Living the Mission series, contact Kev Moyè at email@example.com.)
Williams’ work ethic makes a difference
By Kev Moyè
Lorie Williams is passionate about being a source of hope for the downtrodden.
Growing up in an environment where funds were limited, she knows what it’s like to lack various necessities. Throughout her youth, Williams’ family received food stamps and was part of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Without those government resources, her family would’ve struggled mightily.
And that’s the reason why Williams can empathize with a person who’s experiencing similar hardships.
“What the individual’s ethnicity is, it doesn’t matter to Lorie. She always wants to help anybody who’s struggling,” said longtime friend, Lucille Rose. “Christian, non-Christian, friend or foe, she tries to help a person if there’s an obvious need.”
LORIE’S WORK ETHIC
Williams is a modest country girl enjoying life and striving to help others attain happiness.
A native of Marvell, Williams refers to her area of the small Phillips County community as: the rural part of town.
She along with her three brothers, were raised on a farm by their mother and grandfather. Their land was filled with countless rows of cotton. On a small strip of the field, okra was grown. Hogs, cows, and chickens were typically responsible for any unique sounds which came from the isolated farm.
As for the family’s home, it was nestled in the middle of their farmland.
The house had three bedrooms. Williams shared a room with her mother. One of the bedrooms, in which her brothers slept, was also part of the living room. Grandad was the only person to have his own living space.
During this stage of her life Williams was introduced to manual labor. Doing her part to help with the farm, she often completed physically arduous duties.
“In hindsight that lifestyle, it was good for me. But I’d never want to go back and live like that again,” she admitted. “It was hard work. It was truly a lot of work.”
Williams often watched her mother, who worked a regular job during the morning, return to the farm in the evening to complete obligations in the field. Once she became old enough to handle the field work, Williams was assigned similar duties as her mom.
“There were many days when we came home from school, in which we had to pick the cotton. In the summer we had to chop the cotton. We usually got up at 6 o’clock in the morning,” she said. “When it was time to eat lunch, you’d sit out in the field and eat your sandwich out there. When you were done eating … you got up and went back to work.”
“It was a part of our daily lifestyle,” Williams explained. “During that period of my life, I learned that you have to work for what you want. Nothing is given to you.”
Those humble beginnings – which involved various forms of government assistance – remain a motivating presence for Williams.
IT ALL PAYS OFF
A devoted wife, mother, church leader, and Department of Human Services (DHS) staff member for over three decades, Williams’ humility blossomed during her youth in the Arkansas Delta.
“I never forget my past. I just thank God for it,” she said. “Our family, we didn’t have health insurance, dental insurance, or options like that when we were growing up.”
However, she now has several life-enhancement options to choose from.
Much of her ascension embodies why DHS is such a vital agency.
A Division of County Operations (DCO) Assistant Director for the Office of Community Services – Williams commenced her tenure with the state in 1984 at the Phillips County office.
“Lorie was a very good worker who had compassion for our citizens and did everything she could to ensure timely and accurate services,” said Phillips County Program Eligibility Coordinator, Mary Simpson. “During that time of her career, Lorie received an award for Food Stamp accuracy. She was once ranked fourth in the state with number of cases reviewed with no errors made.”
Williams would later assume caseworker duties at the Pulaski South office in 1986 and eventually the Faulkner County office in 1987. She ultimately transferred to the Central Office in 1988 and was assigned the role of Food Stamp, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) policy writer. Williams later became a program administrator. In that role she was responsible for directing the daily functions of the Medicaid, TANF, and Refugee policy units. Williams has formerly supervised the Medical Review Team.
“I enjoy providing the services,” she explained. “This is all about helping people.”
WANTING TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
The task of providing aid hits close to home for the University of Central Arkansas alumna.
Several factors have led to Williams’ enhanced standard of living. But perhaps none are more important than her drive to be successful.
“Lorie was always a conscientious worker and Phillips County hated to lose her,” Simpson said. “But she was destined for higher things. She was always a very ambitious person.”
A current DCO manager of 23 employees, each of whom she greatly appreciates, there’s one thing Williams is always cognizant of.
“People really need the services we provide as an agency. That’s why I have such a passion for this work,” she said. “I’ve experienced the same difficulties as many of the people we help. When I was growing up, we got food stamps. And we got excited when the time occurred to get food stamps because that meant we could actually get a little extra food to eat.”
Williams doesn’t hesitate to correct misinformed individuals about who DHS serves and how it provides a particular service.
“When I hear people negatively talking about folks who are getting assistance, I just tell them it is income based,” she stated. “I make sure they know the assistance offered by DHS is on a need basis. … It’s not just a handout.”
Outside of DHS, Williams continues her work for the community. The wife of a preacher, she is mission president at Rock of Ages Missionary Baptist Church in North Little Rock.
“We do a lot of work through the women’s mission group,” she explained. “We have a food pantry. We collect items for different relief shelters, distribute items of need to the homeless, and serve meals at a homeless shelter once a month.”
Williams is dedicated to helping people gain happiness and optimism about what lies ahead.
“Lorie is the nicest person I know,” Rose stated. “She’s always so kindhearted; always willing to give an individual a chance or help. She’s devoted to making a difference in someone’s life.”
(It is for all of these reasons that Lorie Williams was nominated and featured for the Living the Mission series at DHS, which focuses on individuals who go above and beyond their typical functions. If you know someone who lives the mission of DHS and should be featured for the Living the Mission series, contact Kev Moyè at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Selfless Giving and Hard Work Define Jannie Lowery
By Kev Moyè DHS Communications
HELENA – If Jannie Lowery is aware of someone in a dire situation, she has shown time and again that she will do her best to provide the necessary aid.
“Jannie has such a sweet heart and will help anyone in need,” said Division of County Operations (DCO) Phillips County Administrative Assistant Specialist Monique Brunt. “She has been an incredible asset to this agency. She goes above and beyond to assist staff, clients, and others.”
For Lowery, administrative assistant at Phillips County DCO, there’s one demographic that holds a special place in her heart: disadvantaged youth.
PROMPTED TO TAKE ACTION
Witnessing a heartbreaking situation at the Phillips County DHS forever altered Lowery’s outlook on life.
“I was sitting at the front desk working, and I saw a little kid come in with a trash bag that had his belongings in it … and it drove me crazy,” she said, noting that staff sometimes must provide children coming into foster care with trash bags for their belongings if they don’t have travel bags available. “I was mad. I looked at it as though it was my grandkid. Would I want him carrying a trash bag around with his stuff in it? And I thought – no.”
Lowery could’ve remained idle, but that’s not her style. Instead, she established, “Bags for the Foster Children of Arkansas.”
The goal of the project is to provide quality travel bags for children in foster care. Hundreds of bags have been collected and delivered since the program’s inception last spring.
“Seeing the children carrying garbage bags really impacted Jannie,” said Brunt. “She took action immediately, talking with a local group that then donated a huge sum of luggage to Family Services.
“For Christmas, she contacted a church and they donated hundreds of gifts to the foster children of Phillips County,” Brunt continued. “This brought such joy to Jannie’s heart and mine.”
Lowery – also a staunch proponent of education – donates books to the Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
“I want to see kids happy – that’s all,” she enthusiastically expressed.
Providing goods for the youth is only a small portion of Lowery’s commitment to the community. Among her primary goals is to always exude hope for all people – most notably – the ones who hail from an environment similar to hers. She understands that happy, prosperous adults are better equipped to serve and raise the youth.
SERVING THE DELTA
Lowery is a proud native of Phillips County. She participates in numerous efforts to acquire items of necessity for families in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee. She’s also involved in recycling projects that provide aid for people in the communities of Paragould and Barton.
She acknowledged that her community service activities are often as emotionally draining as they are uplifting. However, Lowery views it as her calling. And for that reason, there are no plans to conclude her mission of benevolence anytime soon.
“My husband tells me I have to give up something, but I really don’t see where I have to give anything up,” she said. “It’s hard at times … but somebody has to do it. I don’t place myself on a pedestal, but I know what has to be done and I try to do it.”
Lowery’s compassion is not in vain. Through her charitable work, she’s become a fountain of inspiration for several individuals. One of those persons is Connie Huff, program eligibility specialist for the Phillips County unit.
“Jannie is one of the most generous people that I have ever met,” Huff said, “always giving of herself and her time to help anyone in need. She is very content to work behind the scenes, making sure that things are getting done and people are being helped. She is content just knowing that she was able to help someone.”
Lowery’s love for people has been applauded by many, according to Brunt.
“Clients have called the office stating how helpful Jannie was with assisting them with their Medicaid,” Brunt said. “Anyone she comes in contact with always has something positive to say. She is a great asset to the agency.”
(It is for all of these reasons that Jannie has been nominated for the Living the Mission series at DHS, which focuses on individuals who go above and beyond their typical functions. If you know someone who lives the mission of DHS and should be featured for the Living the Mission series, contact Kev Moyè at email@example.com.)
DCFS worker takes vacation to volunteer at foster kids camp
Making a difference in the life of a foster child is what drives Chris Jones, a DCFS Family Services Worker, to take the same “vacation” each year. For the past two summers, instead of going to the beach or relaxing at home, Chris uses her vacation time to spend a week volunteering at Royal Family Kids Camp. The camp is exclusively for children in foster care. Watch the video to learn what an impact the camp has on foster children in Arkansas.
Long-time Arkansas Medicaid Employee is a Merry Soul
Rick Daes, as Santa, helps the Little Rock Fire Department personnel deliver toys the department collects for DHS foster children. Rick, a state employee since 1989, is a health facility surveyor with the DHS Office of Long Term Care.
He has been playing Santa for more than 20 years since a friend first asked him don the red suit for his church Christmas party. Rick got to keep the suit, the one he still wears, and he often took it with him as when he inspected nursing homes around the state and dropped in as Santa at Christmas parties at the facilities. Over the years, he lost count of how many times he made appearances as the big guy between Thanksgiving and Christmas
A few years ago, the DHS Division of Children and Family Services asked him to be their Santa for the annual Little Rock Fire Department toy parade in Little Rock. He starts letting his naturally white beard grow out after Labor Day to prepare for his annual role. He says it’s not unusual for children to give him a second look in restaurants and other public places as they try to figure out if he’s “the real Santa.”
Photos: (Top) Rick riding in an antique fire truck along Main Street in Little Rock. (Bottom) Santa talks with DCFS employee Velma Sorrows.
DHS Employee Raised to Serve Others; Mom in 80s Still Setting Example
Volunteering to help people in need is nothing new for Kandy Cayce, a 30+ year state employee who works in the DHS Division of Services for the Blind in Little Rock. Her entire family was raised with a passion to help others.
Kandy’s family still lives in Thornton, a town of about 400 people in Calhoun County in south Arkansas where she grew up. More than 50 years ago, Kandy’s mother, Jo Ann Cayce, saw that people in her area needed help and knew there was no local agency to step in. So she took it upon herself to provide for others. The Cayce family became a sort of one-family charitable organization now called Cayce’s Charities. If someone in Thornton area needed something, JoAnn made sure they had it.
And the need for help never went away. Kandy, her sister Joannie, and nephew Daniel are still involved in their mom’s mission today. Kandy said that people who know her often leave items in her carport and give her items at work. “I never know what I am going to find when I come home,” she says.
When she goes back to Thornton, her car is often overflowing with items she’s collected or that have been donated. Today, Cayce’s Charities operates out of a school in Thornton that Jo Ann purchased when the school closed. Over the years they have expanded to serve an 11-county area in south Arkansas. Jo Ann also operates a food pantry.
Jo Ann, now 83, has been recognized often for her efforts and has been featured in several magazines, including Woman’s Day, Ladies Home Journal, and Family Circle. Jo Ann and Daniel have both been inducted into the Caring Hall of Fame in Washington D.C.
Kandy said her mom’s work is proof that one person can make difference and that she’s glad that she’s been part of the effort her whole life. “To do this becomes like breathing air. You don’t even think about it. You just see the need and act.”
Photo: On a recent rainy afternoon, Kandy loads donations she received at work into her car.
Greene County Office Works Together to Help Foster Families celebrate
Last fall, employees in the DHS office in Greene County decided to do something a little different than the usual school supply drive they hosted. Instead, they pooled their money, time and grilling talents to put together a Fall Festival for children in foster care and their foster families.
“This was a chance for our foster families to not only enjoy a night, but also meet other foster families and learn about additional resources in their community,” said County Administrator David Mote. “The whole office participated, including DCFS, DCO, DDS and DCCECE.”
More than 70 foster children and their foster families attended. Office staff and their families grilled hotdogs and provided chips, soda, ice cream and treat bags for children. There was a giant bouncy house, dancing, face-painting and games. A local police department, fire department, Arkansas Methodist Hospital, and Arkansas Game and Fish participated as well by providing instructional material and taking pictures with the kids while also educating the children on safety.
“One spouse of a DCFS employee told his wife after the festival that he finally understood why she spent so many hours after 4:30 p.m. working for these families,” Mote explained. “The event was such a big hit that my employees are already saving and planning for this year.”
Photo: Greene County DCFS Supervisor Terri Blanchard and assistant Bridgett Wilson having their photo taken in the photo booth at the festival.
Employee heeds call to foster, adopt
When Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education Assistant Director Laura Webb was in college, one of her close friends told Laura she had “aged out” of foster care without ever finding a forever family. Her friend’s experience stuck with Laura for years. In 2010, while still single, Laura decided to become a foster parent after seeing the traveling “Heart gallery” photos of children who are available for adoption through Arkansas’s foster care system. She received her first placement the day her home opened.
“I have fostered more than a dozen children as a single parent,” she said. “I have done a lot of crying since I began fostering. This is not for the faint of heart. I had a baby for 15 months when she was returned to her mom. I cried for days. I even had to take time off from work because it hurt so badly.”
Laura, who began working for DHS in April 2014, followed the advice of the foster care trainers – she made all the children she fostered part of her family. She attended every court hearing and doctor’s appointment and took the children on vacation. “I met my husband while I was a single foster parent. I told him I would only date him if he would agree to become involved in this ministry with me. He did,” she said.
She was fostering an infant boy when she and Roger married. They were eventually able to adopt him. A year later, they adopted another baby boy. The boys, Joshua and Christian, are now 4 and 3.
After a lot of soul-searching and prayer, Laura and her husband decided to close their home to fostering last month so that they could focus on their boys.
“I cried. It was a very difficult decision. Although I already have a lot on my plate, I felt as though I was failing the children,” she acknowledged. “I had to convince myself that I cannot do it all.”
But Laura still does so much for children in foster care. She serves on the board of The CALL, which is a non-profit that recruits foster families. She also participates in foster and adoption support groups. She wants to find the right homes for the more than 4,900 children in foster care in Arkansas.
“People tell me all the time that they could not do it -- they would get too attached to the children. Then I tell them, you are exactly who we are looking for to foster. We want people who will love the children as if they are their own and cry when they leave because they will miss them so much. I have experienced every emotion possible- joy, pain, anger, frustration, anxiety, disbelief. I have had to remind myself that it is not about me; it is about the children.”
HDC Staff Sponsor Scout Troop for Clients
At DHS's Booneville Human Development Center, residents do more than you think. That's because staff members continue to organize a scout troop each year. Having the troop isn't a requirement for the HDC, but staff members want residents to have a variety of activities to keep them active and involved.
RN Goes Above and Beyond for Arkansas Health Center Residents
If Peggy Smith can do something for her residents, she will. Her staff at the Arkansas Health Center cooks special meals, grows a garden and helps residents get to events off-campus.
Move Over Santa, Alonzo Harris is Here
For 17 years, Alonzo Harris has played an important role in the DHS Foster Kids Toy Drive, putting together every bicycle donated.
DHS ODT Trainer Helps Organize Prom Dress Giveaway
Every year, Crystal Barker finds a way to get young girls to their prom. She helps them find a prom dress for less.
DHS Employee Promises to Find New Home for Client’s Dog
Mike Archer, who works for Adult Protective Services within DHS, talks about how he helped find a new home for his client's beloved dog after the client died.
DHS Director Kicks Off Living the Mission
DHS Director Cindy Gillespie kicks off the Living the Mission series at DHS with a video. Living the Mission promotes the hard work and compassion of DHS employees on and off the clock.
Thomas Uses Rap To Motivate the Masses
By Kev Moyè
DHS Media Specialist/Writer
Rocky Thomas was at church when he got an unexpected call from a friend. So he quickly stepped outside to answer the phone.
His friend hollered, “Listen!”
Thomas then stood still, listening intently as he heard something that was music to his ears.
On the other end of the line, his Arkansas Razorback rap was echoing throughout Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium in the midst of several thousand Hog fans, who cheered in approval.
By this time, Thomas’ cell phone was blowin’ up. Those calls, from other people who were also at the game, went to voicemail. Thomas focused solely on his rap and the screaming fans.
“I’ll never forget it, people were calling the Hogs and at the same time I could hear my song,” he said. “I remember just rappin’ along with it. I had this indescribable feeling inside of me when it was going on.”
Thomas’ Hog rap actually received airplay during a previous game, but he didn’t hear it. So not until the sudden call from his friend did Thomas finally hear his rap used as hype-music prior to a Razorback game.
But how did the opportunity materialize?
Thomas finished third in a local radio station’s best original Razorback song contest. A member of the UA marketing team heard the recording and ultimately got Thomas’ permission to play it.
“That was an unforgettable moment. When Rocky told us that the University of Arkansas wanted to use his rap, we as a family were in our van just celebrating,” said Mandy Thomas, Rocky’s wife of 18 years.
“Rocky loves to make people feel better about whatever it is they’re a part of,” Mrs. Thomas said. “He works hard to make a positive impact. Rocky is serious about putting other people’s needs and happiness ahead of his own.”
A dedicated father, husband, pastor of Botkinburg Foursquare Church, and entertainer – Thomas embraces any opportunity to lend a helping hand.
As part of the Department of Human Services Searcy County staff, as a Division of County Operations Program Eligibility Specialist, he completes statewide reviews and conducts recertification for the aging and people with disabilities to receive life-changing benefits. He also works with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP), and the Medicare Savings programs.
“I enjoy knowing that I can make a difference,” he said. “Many of our clients need food stamps. The Medicare Savings Program pays the Part-B premium on insurance, and that’s a lot.”
“What I enjoy most about being a DHS Employee is how we help people each day. When I have a client tell me that I really helped them out, it makes me feel like I’m making a difference. If we can help make things easier for our people, we’ve done our job,” Thomas added.
Aside from being a proud DHS staff member, he also motivates people through his music.
Thomas is a legitimate hip-hop artist, so he raps about the Hogs and many other subjects such as, health and wellness, being drug free, the state of Arkansas, and even the services of DHS. However, being a devout Christian, several years ago he chose to dedicate the majority of his musical attention to Gospel Rap.
Over the years, he’s developed an appreciation for Christian Worship tunes, Contemporary Christian music, some pop, rock, and dubstep songs. But rap is his heart.
Thomas’ love for hip-hop began as a child, after being part of a church play in which he had to perform a Christian rap. The early 90s popularity of MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, and DC Talk only increased his passion.
“I realized as a kid that I enjoy putting Christian words to hip-hop beats,” Thomas said. “I love using the fast rap style. Fast rap gets the kids’ attention. Then they’ll listen to the God-inspired lyrics.”
“Also, rap is one of the main communication languages for today’s kids,” he said.
Inspiring people to make the most of life is Thomas’ motivation for every rap he writes, any sermon he presents, and each interaction he has as DHS staff.
“I love singing and rapping in front of all different types of audiences, because at the end of the day everything will always point back to God and our testimony,” he said. “Growing up I liked being the center of attention whether it was at a family gathering, or a church play. But now, I want God to be the center of attention.”
“Thinking back to when Arkansas first played my Razorback rap before a game, I knew that God was opening a door for me,” Thomas said. “I knew people would look for ways to find out who I am and then learn that I’m a Christian rap artist. Really, from that point everything just took off.”
(Rocky Thomas was nominated and featured for the Living the Mission series at DHS, which focuses on staff members who go above and beyond their typical functions. If you know someone who lives the mission of DHS and should be featured for the Living the Mission series, contact Kev Moyè at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Hughes works hard to provide hope for all people
By Kev Moyè
DHS Media Specialist/Writer
Nicole Hughes is devoted to helping people.
A Department of Human Services (DHS) Division of County Operations (DCO) Program Eligibility Specialist Supervisor – Hughes exudes happiness while promoting hope for a better tomorrow.
She’s heavily influenced by the compassionate nature of her childhood community of Rockport, located in the north region of Malvern.
“If she sees a need, she’s not going to wait for people to seek her assistance,” said longtime friend Marinda Mitchell. “She’ll do something about it herself, without being asked.”
SERIOUS ABOUT HER DUTIES
Hughes, who works in the Hot Spring County office, has been with DHS for over 20 years.
Prior to working for the agency, Hughes counseled people assigned to the Ouachita Correctional Unit’s Reduction of Sexual Victimization Program. Co-workers say she has a natural ability to connect with people, especially those struggling with difficult life situations. That’s one of the reasons why Hughes enjoys her duties for DHS, she gets a chance to connect eligible individuals to assistance programs.
“I like interacting with the clients. My responsibilities for DCO have made me aware of what people need,” she said. “In fact, each day I assess who I am and why I’m here. The reason I do that is to make sure I never forget that I’m here to serve the people. That’s why we as DCO exist.”
Hughes’ perspective is also influenced by a work-related encounter several years ago.
“I was having a rough day. But everything that particular day, and beyond, changed for me when a client came into the office with two developmentally disabled teenage boys. The boys were in strollers,” Hughes said. “But the client still had a big smile on her face. I was amazed as I heard her beautifully whisper to her boys that they were going for ice cream once she completed some paperwork. Clearly, the lady and youth – despite various obstacles – remained excited about life.
“A few moments later, that amazing woman says to me, ‘You’re either going to get busy living or you’ll get busy dying. Me and my boys … we choose to live.’ I’ve never forgotten that powerful moment. It’s one of the main inspirations I have.”
THE ROCKPORT IMPACT
Hughes, a mother and wife, has lived in Malvern for most of her life.
The University of Arkansas-Little Rock alumna, and her siblings, grew-up in a single-parent home and often benefited from the kindness of their neighbors.
“We were part of a huge community that genuinely cared about each other,” Hughes said. “We had a true sense of camaraderie. I’m happy I was raised in that kind of environment. It made a big impact on my life.”
“I can recall a situation during my childhood, when one of my classmates died in a house fire. Her family’s house burned down. Eventually, as a community we came together and moved the debris so that crews could come and build a new home.
“Out of that tragedy everyone in our neighborhood did what they could to help that family during such a tough ordeal. I’ve never forgotten that situation.”
GIVING BACK PROFESSIONALLY AND PRIVATELY
For several reasons, Hughes has become an important member of the community.
“It’s amazing how so many people just love to see that radiant smile she has,” Mitchell said. “People love and trust Mrs. Hughes.”
She embodies civic pride, according to County Administrator of the Hot Spring County office Rose Page
“Nicole is dependable, kindhearted, thorough, smart, and compassionate,” Page said. “She is always trying to find ways to help the community. Nicole always has a positive outlook on life even during difficult times.”
A devout Christian, Hughes has created a pair of church ministries: Feed the Hungry and the Susie Barnes Abron Centurion Scholarship.
Feed the Hungry provides an opportunity for people to receive a fresh, hot meal.
I was looking at the resources in our community and realized we didn’t have anything that provided people with a hot meal,” Hughes said. “I started Feed the Hungry so the people of our community could have a quality hot meal at least twice a month. And it’s become an anticipated, festive community gathering.”
Feed the Hungry also features a DHS element.
“There are many resources for which people don’t know about because they don’t come into a DHS office. They don’t know that they’re struggling with a situation, we can provide assistance for,” Hughes said. “We at DHS have a lot of great programs. But most people only know about SNAP or the Division of Children and Family Services, foster care. So Feed the Hungry is about more than just giving people a free meal. We invite them to the county office to learn more about our programs. We do our best to improve their overall situation, well beyond just providing a quality meal.”
Hughes also spearheads the Susie Barnes Abron Centurion Scholarship – in honor of a beloved community member who lived to be over 100 years old.
“We desire to help our youth get an education. We want to help them with those small needs,” she said. “That’s what the $500 scholarship is for. We don’t want the students to struggle for anything.”
Hughes also is involved with other civic service entities such as: UNITY Group which gives away bags of fruit; ROSE a food pantry and clothing store in Malvern; Malvern Citizens Live, which keeps residents abreast of community developments, and she’s the lead pianist/musician for the Victory Praise and Worship church choir.
“Nicole’s empathy helps her easily deal with all people,” Page said. “She always sees the positive in a situation and remains calm at all times. Mrs. Hughes is just naturally gifted at making people feel welcomed and like their every need means the world to her.”
(It is for all of these reasons that Nicole Hughes was nominated and featured for the Living the Mission series at DHS, which focuses on individuals who go above and beyond their typical functions. If you know someone who lives the mission of DHS and should be featured for the Living the Mission series, contact Kev Moyè at email@example.com.)
Koone Steps Out Her Comfort Zone to Help Senior Citizens
By Kev Moyè
DHS Media Specialist/Writer
Sherry Koone’s silver truck is near the front door of Southern Trace Rehabilitation & Care Center of Bryant.
Koone and her sister, Dana Noblett-Crabtree, get out the truck, open the doors and the flatbed, and start unloading the vehicle. An official from the 116-bed senior center begins to help out, moving items into the lobby.
What are they moving?
About 80 life-like baby dolls, filling an entire corner of the lobby.
Department of Human Services (DHS) staff and members of the community donated the dolls through a drive led by Koone.
“I figured DHS would be a great place to get the word out and collect dolls,” said Koone. “There are some good people who work for the agency.”
Organizing the two-week drive is outside Koone’s comfort zone. The Division of Medical Services (DMS) program coordinator dedicates most of her free-time to her three grandsons, and her boyfriend Donnie Reid, in addition to caring for her five dogs, and six cows.
“Between them … they all keep me pretty busy,” she said.
But one development inspired Koone to step outside of her norm.
Koone was hanging out with her mom, Wanda Noblett, who’s a resident at Southern Trace, when the visit took an unexpected turn.
A nurse brought her daughter’s doll to work for residents to play with. When the nurse gave the doll to Noblett, who has advanced dementia and a portion of her right leg amputated, something special occurred.
“I saw her face suddenly light up. It was like someone flipped a switch,” Koone said. “She was talking to the doll and singing a song to her. The song had only one word, ‘baby.’ Mom loved the doll. She patted it like it was a real baby.”
“To see mom’s face light up and to see that switch flip was amazing,” she added.
Her mom battles anxiety issues. But the doll helps to lessen the anxiousness.
So Koone later purchased Noblett her own doll named Chloe. The doll is a godsend for Noblett, a former field auditor for the Division of Medical Services, who’s lived at the center for slightly over a year.
“Chloe has made her feel needed again,” said Koone. “I wanted every person at Southern Trace to have the same excitement as mom.”
According to the National Institute on Aging, dementia is the loss of cognitive functions like thinking, remembering, communicating, and reasoning. Research has shown that doll therapy, the providing of baby dolls to people with dementia, is likely to make a positive impact.
For patients, having a life-like doll is similar to watching over younger siblings, a child, or even a newborn grandchild. Doll therapy often decreases agitation and provides a sense of responsibility for people who have the condition.
“With dementia comes a number of horrible things … depression and anxiety are just a couple of them,” Koone said. “Mom has had her share of tough situations, so to see her smile and be happy meant the world to me.”
Koone saw her mom’s joy and began to think of helping other residents as well. Her DHS responsibilities revolve around looking out for people. So helping others is natural for Koone.
For DHS, she investigates background check runs for applicants trying to enroll as Arkansas Medicaid providers. That includes people like doctors and dentists.
“My job is to keep possible bad people from enrolling to provide services to Medicaid clients,” Koone said. “Digging into a situation to find the reason negative information is following the applicant is what I like most about my job. And it helps others who may not have that information.”
Koone admires how DHS helps the people of Arkansas – both at work and through community service. So it made a lot of sense for her to depend on fellow staff to help out with the baby doll drive. They did not disappoint.
“Two of the biggest doll donations came from a former DHS employee and a former foster parent,” Koone said.
While there is no second baby doll drive in the works, Koone has collected almost 100 dolls as people still occasionally give donations. As baby dolls trickle in, she plans to drop them off at Southern Trace.
“Thinking back on the day we took the first group of dolls to the center, I was overjoyed to see what my sister and I collected,” she said. “I saw that there was enough for all of the residents to receive a doll and that a sister location would get a few dolls.”
“These are our parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents, and they have spent much of their life caring for others,” Koone said. “Now it is time for others to care for them.”
(Sherry Koone was nominated and featured for the Living the Mission series at DHS, which focuses on staff members who go above and beyond their typical functions. If you know someone who lives the mission of DHS and should be featured for the Living the Mission series, contact Kev Moyè at firstname.lastname@example.org.)