Nearly a million people a year stop at one of Arkansas’ 13 welcome centers. The staffs answer a lot of questions about our state and work hard to see that our visitors feel welcome. Travelers often share personal stories with members of the staff. Once in a while, employees hear a story that reminds them that their work brightens someone’s day.
Sheila Ward, manager of the Blytheville Welcome Center, recently learned that her staff had redeemed Christmas for one of the center’s visitors. Kane Webb, director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, oversees the centers and passed the story along to me.
One day in October, a visitor was complimenting Sheila for the center’s fall décor. A gentleman who was traveling from Iowa to Mississippi overheard their conversation. He interrupted. If you think this is good, he said, you ought to see what they do at Christmas. He said: “It is beautiful!”
Then he showed off more than 40 photographs he had taken of the Blytheville Visitor Center with his phone last Christmas. His wife joined the conversation and told the rest of the story. Sheila and the staff learned they had helped to heal this family’s broken heart.
The couple’s 19-year-old daughter had died during the Christmas holidays 18 years ago, just after she had decorated the family’s Christmas tree. The parents left the tree standing for four years. When the mother finally took it down, she vowed never to decorate for Christmas again.
Two Christmases ago, they stopped at the Blytheville Welcome Center, where the staff goes all out decorating for Christmas. The Christmas carousels and snowmen and angels took the grieving mother by surprise. She returned to their car in tears. Her husband went into the Welcome Center to see for himself. When he returned to the car, he was smiling. He didn’t speak until Memphis, and then he said: “Well, that was something.”
The experience restored Christmas for our visitor. Last year, the couple stopped to revisit the site of their little miracle, and instead of crying, the woman left for Mississippi happy.
When they stopped in October, the couple told Sheila they won’t visit at Christmas this year because their son and his family will spend Christmas with them in Iowa.
The woman told Sheila: “My son missed out on 14 years of Christmas. He will be bringing his wife, my two-year-old grandson and my four-month-old granddaughter.
“We will have our first holiday with all the stuff that I hid in the attic 14 years ago, plus we are buying stuff for new traditions. Just so you know, the decorations you put up mean something to people.”
Sheila said: “The things we see and hear never cease to amaze me, inspire me and renew me. You just never know what may touch a heart.”
I would like to thank the people who staff our Visitor Centers all over the state for the kindness they distribute to our visitors in addition to the tourist fliers and highway maps.