To explain this a little better ...

When Gov. Asa Hutchinson launched the Healthy Active Arkansas plan from the State Capitol on Oct. 14, I was in the back of the room. Behind all of the media. As various reporters asked their questions about the plan, which was designed to promote healthier lifestyles among all Arkansans, I tried to put myself in their shoes.

The Institute - along with other groups like the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, the Arkansas Coalition for Obesity Prevention and the Arkansas Department of Health - has been actively involved in the creation and dissemination of the plan for several years now, so I’ve had a front-row seat to the development of each focus area, each recommendation, each statistic. But if I was being introduced to the plan with no prior context, how would I digest all of the information it holds?

The truth is, it’d be difficult to wrap my mind around it just by sitting and reading through the plan. The Arkansas Department of Health understands that. And they’re doing something about it.

From 10 a.m. to noon on Thursday, Feb. 4, ADH is hosting an orientation meeting designed to give fuller explanations of each of Healthy Active Arkansas’ nine focus areas. Those focus areas are:

  • Physical and built environment
  • Nutritional standards in government, institutions and the private sector
  • Nutritional standards in schools – early child care through college
  • Physical education and activity in schools – early child care through college
  • Healthy worksites
  • Access to healthy foods
  • Sugar-sweetened beverage reduction
  • Breastfeeding
  • Marketing program

The orientation meeting is open to all who are interested in learning more about the plan, especially those who are looking for ways to get involved in helping meet the plan’s two-, five- and 10-year goals.

To reserve a seat (it’s free), email Marisha DiCarlo, director of the Office of Health Communications for ADH, at The meeting will take place in the Health Department’s auditorium, located at their headquarters at 4815 W. Markham St. in Little Rock.

Since we launched the plan back in October, project leads have been identified for each of the nine focus areas. At the orientation meeting, these individuals (including me, talking about the marketing program) will each speak briefly about their specific area, their immediate goals and how others can get involved.

There’s a lot at stake here. It’s no secret that Arkansas ranks near the bottom when the states are assessed for health care outcomes. In 2014, we had the highest rate of adult obesity, and we don’t fare too well on things like diabetes and hypertension, either.

Healthy Active Arkansas is a blueprint for how we can start changing those trends. That means saving lives. It means adding quality of life to people who currently have no hope. It means kids performing better in schools and employees performing better at work (healthy people = better students and more productive workforce). It means making our state a better place to live, which in turn will attract more business here, creating more and better opportunities for Arkansans.

So I invite you to join me on Feb. 4 at the Health Department. I’d encourage you to brush up on the Healthy Active Arkansas plan before you come. You can download a free copy at


Lessons from a Nobel Laureate

Sir Harold Kroto, who received the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, delivered the keynote address and a Q&A with students at the Sixth Nanotechnology for Health Care Conference in December 2015. Great insights from a great man of science.


Sir Harold Kroto Keynote 12-2-15


Sir Harold Kroto Q&A at Sixth Nanotechnology for Health Care Conference


A day in the life: Station archeologist Dr. Emily Beahm

When I was asked to write an article about Dr. Emily Beahm, who became the station archeologist for the Arkansas Archeological Survey’s WRI research station in September 2015, I became more than a little excited. I’m serious when I say I’ve always had a fascination with archeology and geology and things going on beneath the Earth’s crust. I credit this interest to my Arkansas Delta upbringing.

In my corner of Northeast Arkansas, earthquake tremors are commonplace and arrowheads lay hidden just beneath cotton-field furrows. Plus, the Hampson Archeological Museum State Park in Wilson is only a few miles away from our family farm. It houses an impressive exhibit of nationally renowned artifacts from the nearby 15-acre Nodena site. This collection of Late Mississippian Period Native American artifacts (dated A.D. 1400–1650) provided many a school-day field trip for my classmates and me.

Even with my interest in all things prehistoric, until I visited with Beahm, I was a bit clueless as to the day-to-day activities of an archeologist. You may be surprised to learn the archeological goings on not only at Petit Jean Mountain but also all around Arkansas.

Q:  Are you a native Arkansan?

A:  No, but I grew up not too far away in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. I attended graduate school at the University of Georgia and did my dissertation research in Middle Tennessee ("Mississippian Polities in the Middle Cumberland Region of Tennessee"). 

Q:  How did you become interested in archeology?

A:  It seems like a lot of archeologists have cool stories about why they decided to go into the field, but I really don't. I like history and science, and I guess archeology is a way to both pursue scientific inquiry with data and learn about the past.  

Q:  So how did you end up in Arkansas and, more specifically, at WRI? 

A:  Originally, I moved to Russellville because my (then future) husband got a job at Arkansas Tech. He’s an anthropology professor. I joined the survey as an assistant at the WRI research station in September 2013. A few months ago when Dr. Stewart-Abernathy retired, I became station archeologist.

Q:  Congratulations on your new position. You couldn’t work in a more beautiful setting than Petit Jean Mountain. I suppose I’ve always romanticized archeology and imagined massive digs in exotic locales. I’m sure there’s more to it, regular “duties”. What’s a typical day like for you

A:  There’s a fair amount of variety in what I do from day to day. The Arkansas Archeological Survey's mission is to research, preserve, protect and educate the public about Arkansas' archeological resources. I often work on records management at the office—filing archeological site information and organizing our artifact collections. 

Q:  I did a bit of research on the Arkansas Archeological Survey website. I’m fascinated by the projects going on across the state, particularly the Plum Bayou Gardens at Toltec Mounds and Historic Cane Hill. What research do you have planned specific to the WRI station and surrounding area?

A:  There are several. One project that I’m working on is putting together a comparative collection at the WRI station—of artifacts ranging from historic pottery to prehistoric projectile points and chert types. I anticipate this will be a useful tool not only for those of us here at the station, but also for other local archeologists. Non-professional visitors to the station should also find this interesting. Also, I’ve begun researching the Mississippian (late prehistoric) occupation in the Arkansas River Valley. The first step in this has been to look closely at some artifacts we currently have in our collections that have not yet been analyzed. Another project that I’m excited about is the Native American garden I’m planning next to the station at WRI. It will have native cultigens—domesticated and cultivated plants used by Native Americans in the area prior to the introduction of corn. And I’m involved in the Project Dig program. This outreach program involves working with several local elementary schools.

Q:  I love that the WRI research station is working with schoolchildren. I think that’s so important.

A:  I agree. I love teaching children about the elements of culture and basic archeological methods. It’s a lot of fun and rewarding at the same time.

Q:  Do you need volunteers to help with your projects?

A:  I would be happy to have volunteers. We usually have volunteer days the third Saturday of the month. Volunteers would be especially useful this spring when I start working on the garden. If someone is interested in devoting a few hours, email me at

Thank you, Dr. Beahm! Don’t be surprised if I show up one Saturday to volunteer.

The station located at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute is one of 10 Arkansas Archeological Survey research stations located throughout the state. To learn more about sites and ongoing research, visit

Read more from Talya Boerner at Grace, Grits, & Gardening.       


Arkansas Grown: Connecting Arkansas consumers with Arkansas producers

The holidays are upon us and as we look at the winter season ahead, we may be missing the fun colors and activities of fall. You may have picked your own pumpkin, then your own Christmas tree. You probably enjoyed a hayride and some hot chocolate at a nearby farm. Most people seem to be able to find these types of adventures during the fall season. But what if you want to buy local produce all year, or you are interested in activities that may be available at a local farm during the winter and spring months? The Arkansas Agriculture Department has developed a great website and program called Arkansas Grown ( to connect Arkansas consumers like you with Arkansas producers and their business information.

The Arkansas Grown website allows any producer in the state to list their marketing information at no charge. Consumers are then able to search those producers by location, type of produce or homemade product and point-of-sale options. So if you live in Conway County and want to know what type of pick-your-own operations are nearby, you can apply those filters on the Arkansas Grown website and find the farm nearest you with a description of their operation from the producer. I had a great time searching through the hundreds of farms listed on the website, and I now have several weekends booked with plans to visit the nearby farmers’ markets and pick-your-own farms in my area.

In addition to the website, Arkansas Grown has a branding program that promotes Arkansas agricultural products. The “Arkansas Grown” mark is a registered trademark of the Arkansas Agriculture Department, so if you see that logo in stores, you can be assured that you are buying a product that was grown locally. The program also has trademarks for “Arkansas Made” and “Homegrown by Heroes” to help potential buyers locate products produced by Arkansans or produce grown by Arkansas veterans. With the recent push to buy local, this program helps consumers easily spot the produce and products in stores.

So if the cold, rainy weather of winter has you missing the fun of fall, just remember to check the Arkansas Grown website to plan ahead for your next visit to a local farm or farmers’ market!


Social Entrepreneurship Boot Camp: Looking back and looking forward

In July of this year we had a great training weekend for aspiring social entrepreneurs here on the mountain with the first Social Entrepreneurship Boot Camp. Together with our partners, the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, the Clinton School of Public Service and the Office of Entrepreneurship at the University of Arkansas, we brought 12 teams of entrepreneurs to Petit Jean and paired them with instructors and mentors for an intense weekend of business development and training. Participants learned firsthand from experts like Permjot Valia, business mentor, angel investor and founder of Mentorcamp; Trish Flanagan, founder of Picasolar and Show Me Solar Power  and co-founder of Noble Impact; and Phyl and Jeff Amerine of Startup Junkie Consulting.

From the very first day participants were given learning opportunities through a keynote interview with notable Arkansas entrepreneur Steve Clark, founder of Propak Logistics and co-founder of Rockfish and Noble Impact, hosted by Talk Business and Politics’ Roby Brock. The next day saw workshops and one-on-one instruction from the mentors. Topics included everything from daily operations with a representative from Westrock Coffee to benefit corporations and certified B Corps with John Montgomery, author of "Great from the Start".

Some of the most intense work was done on the teams’ lean canvas business models (a one-page model that breaks down larger business concepts into nine concise segments) and three-minute elevator pitches. Those two tools helped the teams and mentors work through and refine each business’s goals, purpose and social benefit. All of the teams made amazing progress, with all going home with new goals and work to pursue and some even going on to open brick-and-mortar stores after finding investors.

We look forward to following up with our participants in the coming months and sharing some of their successes. More than that, however, we look forward to carrying on the energy and hard work from this year with a new batch of teams for the second Social Entrepreneurship Boot Camp in July 2016. Keep an eye out for updates on our website. We’ll be sharing the application instructions after the New Year and will begin accepting lean canvas drafts and elevator pitch videos in February to start the selection process for the next group of aspiring social entrepreneurs.       


Top educators share success stories at Uncommon Communities session

“In America your zip code or your socioeconomic status should never determine the quality of your education.” — Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education

Education was the focus of the second mountaintop session of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Uncommon Communities program, a community and economic development initiative designed by the Institute in partnership with Dr. Vaughn and Sandy Grisham of the University of Mississippi and Dr. Mark Peterson of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service and Dr. Roby Robertson of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Institute of Government. This might have seemed like a dramatic shift in topics to the participants from Conway, Perry, Pope, Van Buren and Yell counties, who during the first session learned about the power of good leadership and how simple improvement projects—a new coat of paint here, a few trees planted there—can lead to a town’s renaissance.

If the first session, held at the end of August, was about inspiration and motivation, this session was about getting down to some serious work. And where better to start than with education—after all, every town’s future depends on today’s children. Two keynote speakers on Saturday, Nov. 7, shared their approaches to the specific challenges of rural education in two very different rural environments: northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas Delta.

When Daisy Dyer Duerr took over as principal of the failing 199-student St. Paul elementary and high schools in 2011, she had two basic goals: to strengthen relationships and to use technology to provide a global education for a tiny town where dirt roads and generational poverty are the norm and graduating from high school, much less going to college, isn’t. After showing a (sometimes alarming) video that detailed the ways in which Generation Z—learners between the ages of 2 and 20 now—is growing up “technology complete,” she outlined how she became a “digital principal” and used that technology to rocket test scores and, ultimately, land the tiny St. Paul High School a Bronze rating from U.S. News and World Report, along with national acclaim.

It started with a $6,000 grant, which Duerr used to buy digital readers. She explained that the “cool factor” alone helped increase the number of male readers by more than 50 percent. When it turned out that Duerr had been the only Arkansas applicant for Title 1 grant money, that $6,000 turned into $50,000, and Duerr outfitted teachers and classrooms with iPads, sending the teachers home with them over the summer with a strict mandate that they immerse themselves in the technology and come back in the fall armed with innovative ways to employ them in their teaching.

Then Duerr did something really controversial: She told students to bring their smartphones to school. In a time when most schools have a no-tolerance policy regarding cell phones, Duerr saw an opportunity to increase her students’ access to information and electronic educational tools. In 2012, St. Paul Elementary was named one of 25 “Model Schools” by the International Center for Leadership in Education; St. Paul High School followed in 2014.

Following Ms. Duerr was Scott Shirey, the founder and executive director of KIPP Delta Public Schools, who was named one of the world’s seven most powerful educators by Forbes Magazine in 2011. The KIPP Delta Schools—KIPP stands for “Knowledge is Power Program”—are a collection of six public preparatory schools in Arkansas: three in Helena-West Helena, two in Blytheville and one in Forrest City. Despite the fact that they are in some of the most resource-deprived counties in the state (the overwhelming majority of KIPP Delta students, at all grade levels, qualify for free and reduced lunches), these schools consistently outperform other public schools in the area.

The KIPP schools originated in Houston, Texas, where two Teach for America teachers were trying to find a way to keep students more involved in school and steer them away from any path leading to drugs, crime and prison. They invited 50 students to participate in an intensive program that included nightly homework assignments and Saturday school. Not surprisingly, test scores began to go up for these students.

The two teachers sensed that they were onto something, and the first two official KIPP middle schools were opened the following year, in Houston and New York City. By the end of the decade, the stellar performance of these schools had attracted the attention of 60 Minutes and of Gap Inc. founders Don and Doris Fisher. While the founders worked on creating a replicable blueprint for new KIPP schools to be founded elsewhere, the Fishers created the Fisher Fellowship, a one-year program that prepares founders to establish and lead KIPP Schools.

This is where Shirey comes in—with the founding of the first KIPP Delta middle school in 2002. When Shirey arrived in Helena, the word “preparatory” was misspelled on local school buses. Sixty-five fifth-graders entered the KIPP Delta College Preparatory School with collective math and literature test scores below the 20th percentile; by the end of the year, they were at the 49th percentile. In four years, by the time those fifth-graders were in ninth grade, their average had risen to the 91st percentile. The first KIPP Delta school had busted a long-held myth when it comes to low-achieving students by proving that “it’s not the kids.”

By 2009, the KIPP Delta schools had more African-American students passing AP calculus and English than any other school in Arkansas, and they had the second-highest 11th-grade literacy scores (second to the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Science and the Arts, admission to which is dependent upon grades and test scores, unlike at KIPP). KIPP students have earned to date $6 million in college scholarships, and those students will graduate from college in numbers many times over the national average for students from low-income families. It’s worth noting here that the six Arkansas KIPP Delta schools are the only KIPP schools out of 183 nationwide that serve primarily rural students.

What the KIPP Delta and St. Paul schools demonstrate is that it doesn’t take big-city resources to achieve big-time educational success—just hard work by smart and dedicated people who firmly believe that Arne Duncan’s words above are, or at least should be, true.


Visions of nanoparticles dancing in my head

Nanoparticles dancing with cells in the brain. That was my scientific takeaway from the Fifth Nanotechnology for Health Care Conference, held in April 2014.

As we gear up this week to host the Sixth Nanotechnology for Health Care Conference, I’m reminded of that image, planted in my memory by Dr. Elena Batrakova, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It was during a reception last April that Batrakova was telling me and our executive director, Dr. Marta Loyd, about the nature of her research.

“So tell me, Dr. Batrakova, what’s the end goal of your research,” Loyd said.

Batrakova answered matter-of-factly in her rich Russian accent, “We hope to find better ways to treat and even reverse the effects of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.”

So her research could change the world.

My mind was blown. Hers was at ease as she went on to describe the challenges in treating illnesses like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, those that affect the brain.

According to an article on Batrakova’s work by David Etchison, “Getting drugs into the brain is extremely difficult in general because it is protected and isolated from the rest of the body by the blood-brain barrier, which is extremely selective about what is allowed to pass through.”

The approach of Batrakova’s research, as Etchison describes it, is to load nanoparticles into macrophages—a type of white blood cell—which are able to bypass the blood-brain barrier. Another delivery method is to load the nanoparticles into exosomes—tiny bubbles of protein and fat produced naturally by cells, as Etchison describes them—that have been isolated from macrophages and deliver those through the blood-brain barrier. Batrakova’s description of the bypass was delightful.

“It’s like the macrophages and the cells of the blood-brain barrier are dancing,” she said, beaming.

Her use of visuals made it easy for us laymen to understand the nature of her work. In essence, the cells she injects with medicine to treat Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s function as sort of a Trojan horse. This has revolutionary implications for the medical field. And the gravity of the work is not lost on Batrakova.

“Every time we (she and her team) publish our next research paper, I receive hundreds of emails and calls from patients, from their relatives,” she said during a recent interview. “It’s so encouraging because they just ask ‘when, how?’

“I feel how important this research is.”

Batrakova presented on her research at the last Nanotechnology for Health Care Conference. Since then, she has collaborated with several scientists she met during her brief visit to Petit Jean Mountain. We take a lot of pride in identifying and convening leaders in science, policy, business and other fields, and we love hearing that the connections they make here have lasting effects in their work.

This year, we have an equally impressive lineup of speakers, including Sir Harold Kroto, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996 for his discovery of fullerenes.

I’ll be the first to admit that most of the science discussed at our conference is well beyond my capacity for understanding. But that image of cells doing a two-step with nanoparticles brings it home for me. What research will I learn about this week that could someday change the world? I can’t wait to find out.


How to solve our most important problems

Vaughn Grisham is a fixture in the area of community development. The founding director of the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement at The University of Mississippi, Grisham is a key partner for the Institute’s Uncommon Communities initiative.

“I grew up a citizen of the poor South. I always recognized the intelligence in the people I lived amongst but there just wasn’t a lot of opportunity,” Grisham said when I asked him about what got him interested in community development. “As a young person I wanted to leave the South, leave Mississippi. But my mother told me that we needed people who wanted to make the South a better place to stay. They were the ones who were going to transform the South. She pointed out that we had to work together to solve our most important problems.”

Grisham has helped community groups and activist citizens work together for decades. His most recognizable work is “The Tupelo Model of Community and Economic Development,” which tracks the evolution of the poorest county in the poorest state in America to a community that eventually produces more jobs than they have citizens. If that kind of transformation can happen in a place like Tupelo, Miss., it can happen anywhere. It’s that kind of track record and commitment to citizen-led growth that brought him to Arkansas.

“I’ve long been familiar with Gov. Rockefeller. I admired his approach of pulling together people who have done extraordinary work and then determining how that can be applied to his beloved state. My connection to Arkansas goes back to that,” he said. “I eventually ended up working with the city of Morrilton in the early-to-mid-1990s when Barry McKuin called asking if I would help develop a leadership program for the city [Vision 2020/Conway County]. The timing turned out to be extremely fortuitous. In 1999, two factories closed within 10 days of each other. These closures cost the city approximately 1,300 jobs in a town of just over 6,500 and a county of just over 20,000 at the time. But because the community was already in the midst of proactive leadership and community development, and because they were developing leaders, they were able to mobilize quickly.” Within 60 days the Conway County Economic Development Corporation had two major job announcements. Recruitment and relocations continued to the point where the turnaround was dubbed the "Morrilton Miracle."

The Uncommon Communities initiative builds on these earlier efforts and what Grisham has done since then.

“We bring these teams [leaders from Conway, Perry, Pope, Yell and Van Buren counties] the best resources from all across the nation, but they have to do the work! They have to organize themselves and prioritize what’s important to their community,” he said. “I have to convince them they can do important things. I’ll tell them stories about communities in Appalachia, in small-town Michigan and other places that are doing tremendous things. They were able to transform their communities out of tragic circumstances ranging from underperforming education systems to countywide economic peril.”

The key, Grisham said, is that participants take all these great ideas and adapt them to fit their communities.

“What it takes is for someone to stand up and say, ‘This is intolerable. This will no longer stand,’ and then they have to be willing to do something about the problem.”

When it comes to community development, Grisham knows it’s all about people who want to make a difference coming together and making the commitment to make things better. Just like his mother said.


2016 culinary program full of food, glorious food

In the classic Broadway musical “Oliver!”, based on Charles Dicken’s “Oliver Twist,” orphans put their longing for delicious meals into song.

“Just picture a great big steak —

Fried, roasted or stewed.

Oh, food,

Wonderful food,

Marvelous food,

Glorious food.”

If wonderful, marvelous, glorious food is what you long for, too, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s 2016 slate of culinary classes is for you.

Ice cream. Smoothies. Fish. Pasta. Grilled cheese. Pies. Seafood. Our culinary program covers a wide range of foods with classes to suit serious foodies, cooking newbies and everyone in between. Three cooking series are returning in 2016, with one new addition. All classes are taught by the Institute’s culinary director, certified executive chef Robert Hall.

Chef’s Tasting Dinner

Four Chef’s Tasting Dinners on the calendar for next year:

  • Taste of the Titanic
  • Taste of Brazil
  • Taste of Italy
  • A Victorian Christmas

Each is a multicourse culinary experience with 10–15 “tasting courses.” Tasting courses are small portions that capture the essence of a certain dish in just a few bites. These thematic dinners are designed for couples or pairs. Held on a Friday or Saturday night, they include the meal, wine pairings, overnight accommodations and a continental breakfast the following morning. Cost is $235 per person.

Made From Scratch

If you think cooking from scratch can’t be fast, easy, healthy and fun, think again. The 2016 Made From Scratch lineup includes such classes as:

  • Practically Perfect Pizza
  • One-Pot Meals
  • Terrific Tailgating
  • Healthy Substitutions

In these demonstration-only classes, you’ll learn the best culinary practices and techniques required to make a delicious dish from pure, simple ingredients. Plus, you’ll get to sample what’s on the menu, so you won’t go home hungry. Held Tuesdays from 6–8 p.m., each class costs $15 per person.

Saturday Chef Series – NEW for 2016

Looking to brush up on basic cooking methods and techniques? Then the new Saturday Chef Series is for you. These three-hour classes combine demonstration and hands-on cooking with themes like:

  • Hot Breakfast
  • Pasta, Pasta
  • The Cheaper Chicken
  • Holiday Desserts and Confections

Classes start at 10 a.m. and cost $45 per person.

Table for Two

Enjoy some downtime with your significant other, or even a close friend, while learning how to make a delicious meal for two. Classes that are back by popular demand include:

  • Rosemary Shrimp Scampi
  • Grilled Ribeye
  • Lemon-Butter Orange Roughy
  • Asiago Chicken

After a demonstration on how to cook the night’s entree, you will step up to the stove together and practice your new skills. You’ll then enjoy the meal you’ve prepared at a candlelit table for two. Usually held on a Friday or a Saturday night, this class includes a four-course meal, overnight accommodations and a continental breakfast the following morning. Cost is $125 per person.


Uncommon Communities team up to ‘Paint the River Valley’

Approximately 30 residents of Pope and Yell counties gathered at Arkansas Tech University to learn about a new beautification initiative being undertaken jointly by the two counties. The initiative, called “Paint the River Valley,” has invited businesses in Russellville, Dardanelle, Atkins, Pottsville and surrounding areas to spruce up their properties with paint and other minor improvements the weekend of Nov. 14-15.

The initiative is an early result of Pope and Yell counties’ participation in the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Uncommon Communities program. Uncommon Communities is a yearlong community and economic development program that aims to equip community leaders with the skills and knowledge needed to effect positive change while opening eyes to the possibilities for a vibrant future. Conway, Perry and Van Buren counties are also participating in the program.

Tonya Gosnell, community education manager at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center and secretary of Pope County’s Uncommon Communities group, explained that the inspiration for “Paint the River Valley” came from Greenville, Kentucky. Greenville was featured in the inaugural meeting of the Uncommon Communities program, which was held at the Institute in August.

Against a backdrop of before-and-after photos of downtown Greenville, Gosnell told the story of a small town—population just over 4,000—that went from empty storefronts and a dwindling population to being named No. 4 on Budget Travel’s list of America’s Coolest Small Towns in 2013. And all Greenville started with was a few cans of paint.

“It just becomes contagious,” said Gosnell. “Whenever you become motivated about change, and volunteering and helping people, real change starts to happen. It’s an inspiring story, and it didn’t take much to get them started.”

So far, businesses in Russellville, Dardanelle, Atkins and Pottsville have signed on, with other possible projects in Dover and Hector. Gosnell, who lives in Russellville, stressed the importance of regional collaboration in the endeavor. “This is a great opportunity for us to have unity within the county,” she said. “This doesn’t just mean Russellville or Dardanelle.”

While images of buildings slated for a face-lift were projected behind her, Gosnell explained some details of the proposed improvements, including color schemes and specific areas to be painted. Hobby Shop Deluxe, in Dardanelle, whose owners were present, is one such building. “They want the building to keep the old-school feel,” explained Rashad Woods, a reporter for the Dardanelle Post Dispatch and the publicity chair for Yell County’s Uncommon Communities group. “We’re not going to lime-green it up—we’re not going to scare you. We’re just going to bring it back to life.”

While many supplies, in-kind donations and discounts are coming from area businesses such as Lowe’s and Sherwin-Williams, along with other equipment from area residents, the work itself will be done entirely by volunteers—many of them students. Professional painters and other tradesmen will be on site to supervise the work. And for those who might be reluctant to take up a paint brush, yard work and cleanup will be done at several locations.

Dr. Mark Peterson of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, one of the creators and faculty members of the Uncommon Communities program, reiterated the importance of these seemingly small improvement efforts. “This is more than just a paint-up, fix-up. When you start to really spruce up your community, people get excited. And investors who are looking to start a business start to look seriously at your community…This is really a catalyst for a larger development process.”

For more information about “Paint the River Valley”—and to sign up to volunteer—visit the Uncommon Communities: Pope and Yell Counties page on Facebook.