A Clear VisionBart’s Place Eye Clinic Serves Hot Springs With Free Glasses

A Clear Vision
Bart’s Place Eye Clinic Serves Hot Springs With Free Glasses

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

In the Gospel of Mark, we witness one of the few times that a recipient of Jesus’ miraculous healing power is named. Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, receives the gift of sight from Christ while Jesus and his disciples are on their way through Jericho.

Oaklawn United Methodist Church realizes the necessity of a good pair of eyeglasses, and through their Bart’s Place Eye Clinic, named after Bartimaeus from the Gospel of Mark, they are able to freely give the gift of sight to disadvantaged patrons in their community.

“We don’t have the power to heal the blind as Jesus did but through optometry and ophthalmologists working with us, we can work to restore vision in a positive way,” said the Rev. Russell Breshears, senior pastor at Oaklawn UMC in Hot Springs.

About 10 years ago, Breshears was serving a different appointment at Oak Forest UMC in Little Rock. The church was well-known in its community because of the free dental and medical clinics that operated out of its building during the week. But Breshears and church leadership were looking for ways to expand their free clinics into another area: eye care.

“At the time, one of the local eye clinics located in a Walmart was going out of business, and they were getting ready to sell off all of their old equipment. And I said, ‘well hold on, we can use that equipment. We have a medical and dental clinic; we really need an eye clinic as well.’”

After some negotiations with Walmart, Breshears was able to acquire the equipment for Oak Forest and move the eye clinic into a room in the church’s basement that, because of its absence of windows and natural light, was perfect for eye examinations.

Another miracle happened when Dr. Tim Norton, an optometrist who owns Contact Lenses Xpress of Little Rock and Hot Springs, offered his services for free after seeing a story about Oak Forest’s clinics on TV.

“He asked me how much we were purchasing our frames for and I told him about $15 – $20 a pair. He said, ‘Well, how would you like to pay zero dollars?’ It’s kind of hard to say no to zero,” Breshears said.

“It’s a partnership of the church, doctors, and the labs that create the eyeglasses. Everybody working together.”

The eye clinic at Oak Forest is still in operation, but Breshears was appointed to Oaklawn UMC in 2015, meaning he had to leave the clinic he had been instrumental in setting up.

Breshears, however, wasn’t going to leave the idea of a free eye clinic behind in Little Rock. He wanted to bring the knowledge he gained from the Oak Forest eye clinic to the Hot Springs community as well.

The church quickly latched on to the idea, and Bart’s Place opened for business.

Although visitors to Bart’s Place Eye Clinic don’t receive an eye exam on-site as they did at Oak Forest, the clinic still measures patients’ eyes and fits them with a brand new pair of frames for their glasses.

“When we started the eye clinic at Oaklawn, we partnered with the Hot Springs Cooperative Christian Ministries and Clinic. And they do our eye exams and then send people over to us to select their frames.”

According to their website, the CCMC treats the sick who can’t afford the cost of a doctor’s appointment or a prescription, which includes individuals who have no health insurance – Medicaid or Medicare – and need help but have nowhere else to turn.

Rev. Russell Breshears (left) and Mabeline Norris (right) stand in front of the display case for the frames at Bart’s Place. || Photo by Caleb Hennington

When patients come to Bart’s, a volunteer measures the distance between the left and right pupils with a device. They then select a pair of frames from a wall of options, just like in a normal clinic. Breshears said that after selecting their frames, patients’ prescriptions are sent to Dr. Norton, and in about 2 – 3 weeks, a new pair of glasses will be ready for pick up.

“It’s a partnership of the church, doctors, and the labs that create the eyeglasses. Everybody working together,” Breshears said.

Every step of the process — from the examination to the new pair of glasses — is free for everyone in the community, but the clinic is particularly focused on helping underprivileged and underserved members of Hot Springs.

“We don’t have income criteria for the eye clinic, but we say if you cannot afford to get an examination and buy a pair of eyeglasses — which can sometimes be as much as $300 — then the church and the community can help you with that,” Breshears said.

Breshears estimates that Bart’s Place gives out somewhere between 50 – 60 eyeglasses per year.

A device that the volunteers at Bart’s Place use to measure the distance between the left and right pupils of a patient. These measurements are used to select the correct frame size for a new pair of glasses. || Photo by Caleb Hennington

Mabeline Norris, a resident of Hot Springs, is just one of the many people who has benefited from the free services at Bart’s Place.

“The way my Medicaid worked, they would pay for my eye exam, but not my glasses. So when I heard about Bart’s Place and them giving out glasses to folks, I said ‘Oh praise God! Thank you Lord!’ because I needed glasses bad and I couldn’t afford them,” Norris said.

Norris said she has been coming to Bart’s Place for about five years and recently found out that she has glaucoma, which means her prescription can change every year. Bart’s Place was able to find a pair of bifocals for her, which she said has greatly improved her vision.

“I was just using reading glasses before but now I can actually see!”

The clinic not only carries frames for adults, but they have a fun and colorful selection of children’s frames as well.

“That’s because Medicaid only covers one pair of glasses per year for kids, but little kids aren’t as careful as adults are with their glasses, so the local elementary schools will sometimes bring the kids who need new glasses to our clinic.

“This is all possible because of the partnerships we’ve made in the community. Our church is a mid-size church but because we have great volunteers, the space for the eyeglasses, and doctors who offer their services for free, we can do this work,” Breshears said.

For Norris, if not for Bart’s Place, she wouldn’t have the opportunities that she has now. Norris said that she considers herself homeless and spends her time volunteering at different churches in Hot Springs in order to make a little money and build her income back up.

Oaklawn gives her the opportunity to volunteer her time, as well as provide her with the glasses that she needs to see.

“[Oaklawn UMC] has been a real blessing to me. They show love and compassion to everyone. Anytime I need them, they are right here for me,” Norris said.

Breshears said this clinic has allowed their church to become more like the hands and feet of Christ.

“Not only can I tell someone that we can provide them food if they’re hungry, but we can now also tend to some of their real medical needs. I believe Jesus ministered to our bodies, minds, and souls. And it’s very gratifying when you see someone put on a new pair of glasses, maybe for the first time ever”

Bart’s Place Eye Clinic is open by appointment and is located at Oaklawn United Methodist Church, 216 Higdon Ferry Rd, Hot Springs, AR 71913.

Q&A w/ Von Unruh

Q&A w/ Von Unruh

By Michelle Morris

Lead Equipper of the Center for Multiplying Disciples

This winter quarter, the Adult Bible Studies curriculum, used in UM Sunday School classrooms across the U.S., was co-written by two people with Arkansas connections. Rev. Dr. Michelle J. Morris, writer of the student book, here interviews Rev. Dr. Von Unruh, writer of the teacher book, to share insight into this unique moment.

Share a little bit about yourself. Where were you born? Describe your family.

I was born in Pittsburg, Kansas; lived briefly in Southwest City, Missouri; but grew up in Kansas City, Kansas. The moves were the result of career-related advances for my father, who taught high school science courses. Following my graduation from seminary, I moved to Nashville, Tennessee to pursue PhD. studies at Vanderbilt University.

I am the oldest of three siblings. I have been married twice. My first wife died in 2010. I remarried in 2013 and have three grown stepdaughters.

You are a retired UM Elder. Where have you served?

All the appointments I received were in the Tennessee Conference, except for one in the Memphis Conference.

I was appointed both to smaller churches and to larger churches. My shortest appointment was for a single year. My longest appointment was for twelve and a half years. I was also appointed to the Publishing House for several years, where I was honored to be the editor of Adult Bible Studies curriculum.

My final appointment was as the historian and archivist for the Tennessee Conference.

How did you get called into ministry? How does writing fit into that call?

God called me to be a preacher through what I can only describe as a vision toward the end of an evening worship service at a summer church camp in Colorado just prior to my senior year of high school. I immediately recast my life goals and college plans to accord with God’s call. However, during my years in college, seminary, and doctoral studies, I decided that my calling was really to teach in the area of Bible or theology. But the more I worked in local churches—which I had done regularly since my early high school years—the more I felt that God wanted me in the local church rather than in the classroom. I still wonder sometimes about the life in academia that I left behind, but know from years of experience that folks in local churches are deeply interested in scripture and the teachings of the church. They long for and are deeply appreciative of clergy who, like themselves, take the Christian faith seriously and are intimate with its documents and beliefs.

What is your connection to Arkansas? Why did you retire here?

The small farm I own in Northwest Arkansas was purchased by my maternal grandparents more than seventy-five years ago. My family is only the second family to own the property, which was a Native American hunting ground prior to the 1830s. Although developers in the area have bulldozed them all away, I can recall as a little guy looking with wonder at the buffalo wallows around the property. We still occasionally happen upon arrowheads and small, partially hewn stone tools that we can imagine might have been used by the native population. I’m proud of the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, there are large portions of the pasture land that have never been broken and still grow native grasses.

Since the farm is now surrounded by subdivisions that have little connection to or understanding of the land on which they are built, we strive to be good stewards of our property and care for it and its animals—wild and domestic—with patience and respect. Sadly, the tornado that passed across the wooded portion of the property last October uprooted hundreds of majestic oaks and walnuts, many of which had been growing here since before the Civil War.

How did you come to start writing for the Adult Bible Studies curriculum?

After I left the Publishing House in 2007, the present editor of Adult Bible Studies (Jan Turrentine) contacted me to ask whether I would have any interest in writing for the curriculum that I had previously edited. I was both humbled and thrilled that she reached out to me. I have written lessons for the New International Lesson Annual (ceased publication in 2017) once and five times for Adult Bible Studies Teacher; and have penned several topical articles on scripture and the church year.

What do you enjoy about writing for the curriculum?

Despite the diminishment of Sunday school in many churches and a plethora of other products that are made available to adult classes, Adult Bible Studies remains far and away the most popular adult curriculum produced by The United Methodist Church. The student book is still read by several hundred thousand readers every quarter and the teacher book is used by tens of thousands of teachers. That means the authors of Adult Bible Studies speak to more United Methodists every week than does anybody else in the church—by a wide margin! It is a humbling honor that also imposes a heavy responsibility on writers to be wise, faithful, and helpful in what they say and how they say it.

St. James Opens Doors to Children of All NeedsSpecial Needs Ministry will create more inclusive church service

St. James Opens Doors to Children of All Needs
Special Needs Ministry will create more inclusive church service

By Sam Pierce

Featured Contributor

Rebekah Harpool served as an intern for the children’s ministry at St. James UMC in Little Rock last summer.

“She had a heart for special needs and I saw it as a sign and a time for us to jump into launching the program,” said Sean Dunbar, the children’s ministry coordinator for St. James. “Rebekah was helpful in getting our environment ready and by August, she helped launch a fundraiser to help us fund this ministry.

“… We are just now really starting to see the traction of our work.”

The Gathering, a Special Needs Ministry mission, officially began on Jan. 26, with the first of its six services – meeting the last Sunday of each month.

“Our Special Needs Ministry’s mission is to provide a culture of belonging, dignity, and purpose to everyone who has cognitive, behavioral, or developmental challenges,” Dunbar said.

“We launched our first special needs service to make it more open and comfortable for those that may have sensory or developmental issues that would make worship hard,” he said. “We have created an environment with bean bags, blankets and sensory boxes, and we are really trying to be intentional to how we cater to this community and allow them to experience the full love of God as well.”

Unfortunately, Harpool was hit and killed by a car on Jan. 8 on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. “She didn’t get to see the first service,” Dunbar said. “But she leaves a tremendous legacy in helping us get it off the ground.”

St. James UMC launched its special needs program this past summer on the back of its already established Buddy Program.

“Ideally, the Buddy Program is for any special needs child – whether it is a physical or mental disorder – who needs help participating in Sunday School or worship,” Dunbar said. “We want to provide somebody that can walk alongside that person and help them be comfortable and participate in an everyday church environment.”

Dunbar has been the children’s minister at St. James since 2013 and he said the church has always done the Buddy Program. But it wasn’t formal until this summer.

“Now we have a training program for those who want to participate,” he said. “They learn the best practices and awareness and we also have spots for parents or other caregivers.

“They can register to receive a buddy for whatever church event they need.”

“We want to provide somebody that can walk alongside that person and help them be comfortable and participate in an everyday church environment.”

Sometimes a buddy can be used to help calm the children who have trouble sitting still and want to leave the environment. “They can partner that child with a teen or a young adult, and they would walk with that child around the church until they are comfortable to come back to the group,” Dunbar said.

Currently, the program doesn’t have any kids participating in the Buddy Program. He said he wants more people to come to church and be comfortable and know that there is support for them.

“We have used it primarily in the children’s department, but we would like to offer a buddy for anyone that needs one, whether it is a tween, a high school kid or even an older adult who needs someone to help them experience what the church has to offer,” Dunbar said.

Dunbar said, “There are a lot of blind spots in churches.”

“Things we say with our language, or our body language, has caused a lot of families to be burned at a reals church,” Dunbar said. “We wanted to create a place where this underserved population is included.”

Sadie Wohlfahrt is the children’s minister at First United Methodist Church in Bentonville and the northwest district coordinator for the ARUMC Council on Children’s Ministries. She has been serving as a mentor-type to Dunbar during the launch of the special needs ministry.

Wohlfahrt said Dunbar attended one of her recent workshops and is “taking a good amount of what he learned and then conferencing with me about the specifics as he goes along.”

“I’m here to help support them on their journey,” said Wohlfahrt, who taught special education for 10 years before becoming involved in a church. She has been the children’s minister at FUMC Bentonville for five years.

“One demographic that needs the support of the church are parents of special needs children,” Wohlfahrt said. “We have a lot of work to do, but I think Sean is off to a great start. I think it is really good that he is even aware of the program, and wants to tackle it, because most churches don’t.”

Dunbar said they have also added special needs components to the church’s outreach events including the fall carnival and a Sensory Santa at Christmas. He said the pastors at the church have been super supportive as well.

“During the six or seven years that I have been here, we have had a handful of children that have special needs,” Dunbar said. “It is a super underserved community. The rigors that it takes to participate as a special needs person, just getting out of the house can be difficult and deters participation.”

For more information, contact Dunbar at childdir@stjameslr.org.

Amboy UMC will be the host of a new community garden for veteransEPA grant allows for more gardens around North Little Rock

Amboy UMC will be the host of a new community garden for veterans
EPA grant allows for more gardens around North Little Rock

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

Already established community gardens around North Little Rock show a preview of what’s to come for the Amboy UMC and Veterans Home gardens. || Photos provided by Scharmel Roussel

Already established community gardens around North Little Rock show a preview of what’s to come for the Amboy UMC and Veterans Home gardens. || Photos provided by Scharmel Roussel

Already established community gardens around North Little Rock show a preview of what’s to come for the Amboy UMC and Veterans Home gardens. || Photos provided by Scharmel Roussel

Already established community gardens around North Little Rock show a preview of what’s to come for the Amboy UMC and Veterans Home gardens. || Photos provided by Scharmel Roussel

Thanks to a sizable grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, North Little Rock will be the home of two new community gardens specifically developed for the betterment of veterans who live in the area.

The $30,000 Environmental Justice grant, which was awarded to Arkansas Interfaith Power & Light in 2019, will be used to build a community garden at both the Arkansas State Veterans Home — 2401 John Ashley Dr, North Little Rock, AR — and Amboy United Methodist Church in North Little Rock.

“The grant will be used to help at-risk communities in North Little Rock, concentrating on veterans and their families, but also the community in general,” said Scharmel Roussel, the former executive director of Arkansas IPL. Before retiring from that position in 2019, Roussel was a key player in writing and securing the grant from the EPA.

Interfaith Power and Light is a national organization that looks at environmental issues from a faith-based, stewardship perspective. Arkansas’s affiliate organization has been around for about a decade, Roussel said.

Roussel said that Arkansas IPL’s mission aligns closely with the United Methodist Church’s environmental justice position found in the Social Principles.

“Environmental justice is all about helping low-income people eat lower on the food chain,” she said.

In other words, local, healthy and often plant-based diets.

Roussel said that the decision to choose Amboy United Methodist Church for one of the planned gardens came about in part because of the Rev. Candace Barron, pastor at Amboy, and her connection to the veteran community in Central Arkansas.

“Because this project involved both food and veterans, I jumped on it,” Barron said.

Rev. Barron is a veteran of the Army. She served eight years in the Army; five of those years were active duty and three were in the Army Reserve. Barron said she is passionate about veterans issues and often volunteers at the John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital in Little Rock as well as the Arkansas State Veterans Home in North Little Rock.

Her background as a U.S. military veteran, as well as her role leading a church, made Amboy a natural fit for the garden.

“Amboy has the space and the willingness to experiment with ideas like this. [The congregation] wants to help in any way that benefits the community and helps feed people,” Barron said.

Although the garden is being developed with veterans in mind, both Roussel and Barron said that it is truly a community garden, and anyone looking for access to fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs can have access to it.

Barron and Roussel are hoping that the people benefiting from the garden’s produce will also be the ones working and tending to the garden. They are also hoping to bring the leftover produce from the gardens to local food pantries, in order to ensure that no part of the garden’s bounty is wasted.

“We are really hoping that this will be an educational piece as well. That this garden will lead to better education on healthy foods and will lead to people starting their own backyard gardens,” Roussel said.

Although the Amboy UMC community garden is still in development, the gardens at the Veterans Home are already in place. Out of the eight homes on the property, two homes have raised bed herb gardens. The grant will allow Arkansas IPL to build more waist-high, raised bed gardens, as well as plant vegetables in addition to the herbs.

Portions of the grant will also go toward providing gardening equipment for the kids at Amboy Elementary School, who recently had some of their gardening supplies stolen. Barron said the kids need gardening tools to work in their school garden, as well as T-shirts that they can wear when gardening to avoid getting their school clothes dirty.

Roussel and Barron hope to see a huge success at the Amboy community garden, which will allow them to add more community gardens in the area. One other place that Arkansas IPL is looking to develop is Gardner Memorial United Methodist Church, of which Rev. Barron is also the pastor.

“This is an awesome opportunity for the church and the community, and we need to take advantage of it,” Barron said.

The Holy Spirit Gets Busy at Beyond 2020

The Holy Spirit Gets Busy at Beyond 2020

By Melinda Shunk

Children's Ministry Coordinator

When I was a full-time Children’s Minister, I often felt that my job looked like simply event planning, but in reality, I was creating a space for the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of the people who took part in the event. As your ARUMC Conference Coordinator of Children’s Ministry, my job title has changed, but I am still creating a space for the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of children and those who minister to them.

The Beyond 2020 conference was just another one of those events that was planned by the Conference Council of Children’s Ministers, the people came, and then the Holy Spirit got busy taking whatever we planned to a level of spiritual growth that we never expected. These moments are HOLY and keep all who are in ministry energized to continue to create more Holy moments for those they serve.

At the Beyond 2020 conference this year, we welcomed 75 attendees, with five of those attendees coming from Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Oklahoma! We had three Children’s Ministers who had been in ministry for less than two months. We also had three Children’s Ministers who had been in ministry for more than 25 years!

Liz Emis, a member of the Bentonville FUMC Children’s Ministry Team, shows off a craft made at Beyond 2020. || Photo provided by Melinda Shunk

The Rev. Dr. Leanne Hadley (left) and Children’s Ministry Coordinator Melinda Shunk (right). || Photo provided by Melinda Shunk

Our guest speaker was the Rev. Dr. Leanne Hadley who is an elder in the UMC from Louisville, Kentucky. She has written two books and has spent her life ministering to children. She taught us to let children minister to us as much as adults minister to children. She taught us how to create sacred circles as a space to share the stories from the Bible with our early childhood ages and Kindergartners.

She taught us how to end our time with groups of children by sending them each out with a special blessing using something as simple as blessing balm and eye contact. Rev. Hadley urged us to use the Quadrilateral as a teaching model with our older elementary students to teach them how to wrestle with the scriptures while considering tradition and reason. She believes we can use it with any curriculum we choose to teach in our church.

During her last session, she talked about change, everything is always changing, some love the change some struggle with change, but we get to teach our children that God’s love for them is steadfast and unchanging.

This year, we were able to offer breakout sessions as a new format to the Beyond Conference. Attendees were able to choose from three different sessions offered throughout the day that would specifically meet their needs and interest. We had Missy Walley from the Department of Education teach us about how to manage large groups of children. Sadie Wohlfahrt taught us how to work with differently-abled children. Katie McLean and Kelli Swaim brought many models of prayer stations for participants to touch and learn from. We had a Q&A panel with Sadie Wohlfahrt, Pam Lentz, and Carissa Tarkington. Attendees of this breakout session could ask advice on everything from, “What to say to arguing volunteers?” to “How does a CM teach with their own children in the class?”

Karen Swales brought the fun with simple puppet-making techniques for children to create so they can retell the Bible stories they learn. Joan Walker, one of the Cokesbury curriculum writers, taught us what to expect and how to teach the newly released Celebrate Wonder curriculum that is replacing Deep Blue. Rev. Hadley was able to teach a breakout session about children and grief as well as teaching us how to use the Listening Stones as a tool to encourage prayerful conversations. I was able to get in on the last breakout session and teach how to use the Bible Timeline in classrooms as well as some Bible Bootcamp ideas.

Needless to say, we sent each attendee home with an armful of materials and a mind overflowing with ideas to enrich the ministry experience for all in their churches. Rev. Dr. Michelle Morris was there with the ARUMC Center for Communication team and recorded all of the sessions. You can visit CouRSe in a couple of weeks to revisit the event or show pastoral staff what they missed at Beyond when you go to arumc.myabsorb.com. If you thought you didn’t have time to spare to come to Beyond this year, please consider attending Beyond 2021. We have already started planning and we will have a seat saved for you and your team.

Finding Strength in Our Connectionalism

Finding Strength in Our Connectionalism

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

This month’s stories have made me realize how important our denomination’s connectionalism really is.

If you don’t know what connectionalism is — I’m not being snarky, I didn’t know either until I started working in the conference office — it is a significant piece of Methodist theology that ties every part of the United Methodist Church together.

Connectionalism manifests itself in some of our most common practices, including the appointment of pastors by bishops; our church, district, annual, jurisdictional and general conference meetings; the shared funding for our mission work across the globe; the shared ordination ceremony of our elders and deacons; the list goes on and on.

But on a much smaller scale, our connectionalism reveals itself through the work of the people serving our local churches.

The story of an eye clinic at Oaklawn UMC is one example of a pastor who has brought an idea from one church to another, carrying on the mission of providing health care services to people who cannot afford it on their own.

Another is the therapy dog ministry, which started at Quapaw Quarter UMC and was carried over to Pulaski Heights UMC thanks to passionate leaders who saw the program as a way to minister to their community through the power of paws and fur.

The sharing of ideas and ministries is a wonderful strength of our denomination, and more church leaders should be carrying these ideas over into the churches in which they are appointed.

There’s no reason that a backpack ministry that worked at your last church in the big city can’t be brought over to your new church in rural Arkansas as well.

Even though our denomination seems to be at an impasse, and plans have been made to divide us up, I believe that the ministries we have crafted and the people we have served through shared ideas can still carry on into whatever future lies before the United Methodist Church.

Our connectionalism is our strength. We should always remember that.