VILONIA -- A community steeped in pride and resiliency gave itself a deserved pat on the back at the annual Vilonia Area Chamber of Commerce awards banquet.
"A Year to Remember" was the theme for Saturday night’s event, which focused on the city’s rebuilding efforts following the devastating tornado of April 25, 2011.
Keynote speaker Tom Courtway, University of Central Arkansas president, said during his brief address that Vilonia residents epitomized resiliency and persistence in the storm’s aftermath. Residents maintained a clear vision, exhibited "backbone" and welcomed volunteers with a warm spirit and open arms.
"That, ladies and gentlemen, is the Vilonia story," Courtway concluded.
More than 200 attended the banquet at the high school cafeteria. Tables were decorated with towering candles reflecting points of light. Photos of damaged and destroyed houses were projected on a screen along with pictures of volunteers cleaning up debris.
Sandy Towles was named Citizen of the Year. Following the tornado, chamber officials said Towles worked countless hours at the senior citizens center. She helped clean and assisted in delivering meals and supplies to residents in stricken areas who could not get to the center. Since then, she has been instrumental in the organization and operation of the Vilonia Disaster Recovery Alliance. The retired public school teacher was applauded by chamber officials for having "a compassionate heart and a committed spirit."
Jamie Lyons was named Volunteer of the Year for her many hours of volunteer work at a day care center. Two post-disaster Volunteer of the Year awards were presented to Debbie Martin and Lorenda Donham for their efforts immediately following the tornado.
Coach John Steward was named School Employee of the Year. A nomination letter from Lisa Hazel Evans described Steward as having a positive attitude that is infectious. Steward "has made a huge impact on my children both in and out of the classroom. Not only is he concerned about their education, he is concerned about their overall well-being," she wrote
City Employee of the Year award went to Mayor James Firestone and all city employees for their efforts following the tornado.
Two Youth of the Year awards were presented to juniors at Vilonia High School. Angela Payne was honored for her work promoting Relay for Life and Arkansas Children’s Hospital through her pillowcase ministry. Payne has been battling cancer about four years, and chamber officials said she knows firsthand the importance of cancer research and funding.
Christian Gunter was recognized for his mission work. He leads Sunday night praise and worship at his church and has been on three mission trips, including two to the Dominican Republic and one to South Africa. On the trips, he helped construct an orphanage and participated in hut to hut ministry as well as Aids Hospice, children’s ministries and performing arts. He also was awarded third place for "Compassion," his Law of Life essay in state Better Business Bureau competition.
Vilonia’s Business of the Year award was presented to J&D Supply Co. Although the business was damaged by the tornado, chamber officials said the owners and employees went to great lengths to serve residents and helped many after hours.
The Nonprofit of the Year award went to the Arkansas Angels pageant for special needs children. The pageant has crowned more than 1,000 children the past two years and the effort has spread to other states. Director B.J. Thorn and her daughter, Andrea, who inspired the first pageant, were on hand, along with Andrea’s twin sister, Baylee, and their father, Jonathan. Her crown on her head, Andrea made her way to the stage in her wheelchair to accept the award. She was given a standing ovation.
A post-disaster Nonprofit of the Year award was given to Vilonia Ministerial Alliance for its work in establishing a Disaster Relief Committee and Disaster Relief Recovery Center following the tornado.
State Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, and state Sen. Gilbert Baker, R-Conway, presented commendation awards to the following: Vilonia Senior Citizens Center; Becki Smith, who coordinated Camp Noah Day Camp for Kids; Center Point Freewill Baptist Church; Vilonia Disaster Recovery Center; Vilonia Police Department; and Vilonia Fire Department.
Meeks called the senior center "the heart of the recovery" in the days following the tornado.
Debbie Townsend, outgoing chamber president, reflected on the tornado recovery and her two years in office.
"While 2011 was tragic, the hometown spirit of Vilonia was not broken," she said. "We were shining examples of what pride in community looks like. Neighbor helping neighbor, volunteers manning countless hours serving meals, working in the clean-up and rebuilding. This community came together in 2011. The scars remain on the terrain from the tornado, but knowledge of how this community pulled together will be the memories that we carry forward. I’m proud to say that I’m from Vilonia."
Townsend highlighted a few of the chamber activities for 2011, including a tree recovery workshop, the first business showcase expo, the first Christmas parade and Vilonia Royalty pageants.
Chamber officers for 2012 are Charlie Weaver, president; Dave Boling, vice president; Kim Hankins, secretary; and Sharon Woodward, treasurer.