Arkansans of the Year

Eight men and women moving this great state forward—and who inspire us all to be better

SEN. DAVID J. SANDERS RP_arlife_141023_4749c

Senator, Arkansas State Legislature

Since the first election returns came in Nov. 4, conventional wisdom—not to mention math—has pronounced the private option all but legally dead in its current form. But spend a few minutes across the table from state Sen. David J. Sanders of Little Rock, one of the Republican architects of the conservative alternative to traditional Medicaid expansion, and it becomes clear that you could pick a worse long shot. Sanders makes his case for the private option with a deft mix of fact and vision, of restraint and urgency. He knows what he’s doing.

And he should by now. Sanders is only 39, but he’s been following politics with wonkish fervor since he was a teenage preacher’s boy in Walnut Ridge. As a kid, he dreamed of running for office one day, and he cut his teeth as part of Gov. Mike Huckabee’s transition team while still in his early 20s. Sanders still gets a little wistful remembering his morning stroll across the grass to the Capitol’s south door.

But then he set politics aside for a decade, working in the business world and as a political columnist. The childhood dream became an adult never-gonna-happen—until a close friend persuaded him to run for an open seat in the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2010. A father of five, Sanders says he got his family’s blessing first.

“My kids were all in,” he says. “And my wife said, ‘I knew this was what you needed to do.’ So I ended up doing it.”

In 2012, Sanders moved to the state Senate, running for a two-year term in District 15, which covers a swath of Pulaski, Perry and Lonoke counties northwest of Little Rock. As a legislator, he’s mainly focused on health care and criminal justice, both long-standing interests of his. He views the private option—which uses federal money meant for Medicaid expansion to buy private insurance for Arkansans with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level—as one part of a much larger overhaul of the health care system, which he believes should be driven by innovation in the private sector.

Sanders ran unopposed for a four-year term in November and will be eligible to run again in 2018. Between now and then, though, he’s got a lot of work to do. The private option in its current form may or may not survive another year. But as Sanders says, it’s always been a means to an end, and its death would not equal defeat.

“When we began developing this policy, we said we’re not pouring concrete—we’re molding clay,” he says. “That means things change.”—jbr

DR. ROXANE TOWNSENDRP_arlife_141031_6624c

CEO, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center

In February 2013, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center was struggling financially, and the state Legislature was in the midst of making drastic changes to the Medicaid system that would directly affect how hospitals are paid for the care they provide Medicaid patients. It was, in other words, a challenging time to be taking the helm of the state’s largest public hospital.

Speaking to Dr. Roxane Townsend about the first 22 months of her tenure as CEO of the medical center and vice chancellor for clinical programs for UAMS, she acknowledges those challenges but also throws in words like “fun” and “I get to” and “a welcome change,” which is perhaps not as surprising as it might be, given Townsend’s background.

A nurse-turned-doctor-turned-hospital-administrator who’s a survivor of both the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and rough-and-tumble Louisiana state politics, Townsend’s resume includes stints as secretary for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals under former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, as well as the department’s Medicaid medical director. Four years after Katrina, Townsend moved to New Orleans to help rebuild LSU’s public hospital there and spent the next 3 1/2 years transitioning a hospital that was still in emergency-response mode back into a more normal state of operations.

Although it might seem that Townsend had been faced with radically different circumstances when she came to Arkansas, both situations required balancing a teetering medical institution. At UAMS, she succeeded Richard Pierson, who retired after 31 years as the medical center’s CEO. Since settling into the role, Townsend has worked to bring the hospital back to financial health—for the first time in three years, employees will be getting raises—in part by expanding the hospital’s services, recruiting new faculty and looking to push UAMS’ primary care clinics beyond its main campus into more accessible neighborhood locations.

Townsend has also made a major push to reorient the hospital’s culture toward patient- and family-centered care. One visible change is that nurses now pass on information at shift changes in the patient’s room, where the patient and family members can listen and participate. Patients like the process, she says. “There’s no question in their mind that the person taking care of them knows about their illness and knows what needs to happen.”

And while UAMS may have its challenges, Townsend says, it does at least enjoy a good relationship with state legislators on both sides of the political aisle.

“To have that kind of support means a lot,” she says. “It means you can fulfill your mission without having to be embroiled in all of the controversy.” —jbr

MICHAEL BEARDEN RP_arlife_141013_3418b

Artistic director, Ballet Arkansas

Pressing a hand to his lower back, Michael Bearden grimaces, then grins and mutters something about occupational hazards. His joints have just taken a pounding during an afternoon guiding a trio of Ballet Arkansas dancers through the athletic leaps and dizzying turns of The Nutcracker’s Russian dance. In a few weeks, the dancers will take the stage as they do every December to perform the classic Christmas ballet. But for the second year since his retirement from his 14-year career as a dancer, Bearden will be watching instead of dancing, anticipating each arabesque and jeté from the wings. His role as the company’s artistic director requires a different kind of dance and, thankfully, fewer jolts to the spine.

Since 2013, Bearden has been the company’s designated visionary, always alert for ways to increase the quality and quantity of Ballet Arkansas’ performances. His goal is to enhance the profile of the state’s only professional dance organization—the same one that nurtured his balletic skill and zeal in the 1990s. To that end, Bearden splits his time between working with Ballet Arkansas and teaching ballet at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. During the one week that he spends in Arkansas every month and a half or so, Bearden makes the daily commute to Little Rock from his parents’ home in Searcy. “It’s kind of funny, like I’m back in high school,” he jokes, recalling the years he made the same commute several times a week to study at Ballet Arkansas’ dance school.

“This is my way of giving back to Ballet Arkansas,” he says, explaining that his vision includes parlaying connections he made while a dancer with Salt Lake City’s Ballet West to broaden his home-state company’s reputation on the national dance scene. In 2014, Ballet Arkansas accepted invitations to perform at festivals in Washington state, Missouri and Oklahoma. Bearden and the company’s tour de force, however, occurred within the state. In August, one of Bearden’s dreams for the group came true with Visions, the company’s first-ever choreography competition and the opening event of the 2014-15 season. For the contest, Bearden invited five “emerging choreographers” from throughout the country to submit original works that Ballet Arkansas dancers performed at Ron Robinson Auditorium. A panel of professionals and the audience voted to choose one choreographer—Hilary Wolfley of Utah—to create a 15-minute work that will be included in the company’s April 2015 show.

While he can’t predict what will happen beyond the two years remaining in his contract as Ballet Arkansas’ artistic director, Bearden says, his devotion to the dance company and the state is lifelong and ongoing.
“I don’t really know what’s going to happen here, but I’m going to work like I’m going to continue with the ballet. I’m fully committed,” he says. “I’m a planner. I love to plan out the future.”—ro

JOHNECIA HOWARD RP_arlife_141023_4976a

Dean of students & athletic director, eStem Public Charter School

When Johnecia Howard laughs, the sound resonates as an infectious, heart-strong, nothing-held-back burst of energy. It’s impossible not to laugh with her as she describes the riotous experience of having 16 teenage girls take over her spotless, magazine-perfect living room the previous evening. “They were all laid out, five on this couch and five on the other, and the rest of them piled on pillows and blankets on the floor. It was crazy.” Howard laughs again, recalling how the chattering, spirited teenagers shrieked and giggled at “some silly horror movie” while decimating platters of homemade quesadillas. Gathering at Howard’s house was the girls’ idea, their response when she asked what they’d like to do as a “bonding activity.”

Although it might seem curious to put this sort of bonding on par with shooting-and-rebounding drills, the 33-year-old coach of eStem Public Charter School’s girls varsity basketball team says it’s just as important. And given her track record—most notably leading the Lady Mets to triumph at the Class 3A state basketball championship in March—it’s a winning strategy. Helping the diverse group of teen girls learn to care about—and even love—one another gave them the vision and sense of purpose that propelled them to the title, Howard says.

“I believe that if the girls can trust each other off the court, they can play together on the court,” she says. “My first realization in sports was that it’s not about what you have or don’t have—it’s just about doing the work and everybody buying into the vision.”

After losing five key players to transfers at the beginning of this past school year, the Lady Mets were firmly entrenched in the have-not camp—with the lack of an on-campus gym or basketball court further deepening that disadvantage. But Howard and the remaining eight players were undaunted.

“The girls were committed across the board to winning,” she says. “I just had to give them a plan to do it.” They trained around the town, running hills to build strength and stamina, and moving to a local community center for ball handling and other drills. Paired with the bonding experiences of movie nights and volunteering at local charities, it was enough to take them to the top of their division. Now, as the team continues forward in its 2014-15 season, Howard is repeating the strategy in hopes of more wins.

“We had so many roadblocks and disadvantages, but the girls were just like, ‘Let’s go, let’s do it,’” Howard says. “They were like sisters. They relied on each other for everything. I’ll say this to the end of time: It’s not just about basketball, but more about us being a family unit. It’s about love.” —ro

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