Community leaders and Arkansas Department of Human Services representatives came together Monday to tour the Polar Express route and judge the annual display competition.

Conway Human Development Center Superintendent Sarah Murphy has said the Polar Express event, which is now in its fifth year, is both a campus and community favorite.

The event showcases the joys of the Christmas season and allows the facility to welcome area residents to the CHDC grounds to take a ride on it’s historic train and take part in holiday activities.

“At the Polar Express, the Christmas Spirit is in the area,” Murphy told the Log Cabin Democrat. “There are lots of smiles and laughter.”

Gearing up for opening night, local leaders toured the 2019 Polar Express layout and display designs, voting on their Top 3 favorites.

After taking the chili, half-mile loop on the historic Old Centry Flyer housed on the CHDC campus, each judging participant scored the Christmas displays on a scale of 1-10. Of the thirteen displays, the CHDC’s Habilitation and Training Team received the top honor for its interactive Land of Misfit Toys display.

The Land of Misfit Toys display is one of the final sights to see before the train rounds the corner up and heads back up to the campus train station. As those loaded on the Old Century Flyer make their way along the campus tracks, residents and volunteers dressed as abominable snowmen and unwanted toys happily wave and greet each group.

Two other campus groups earned second- and third-place honors.

CHDC’s Intensive Training Team earned a second-place title for its Fox Creek Pet Shop Stores display, which was an intricate, hand-painted display toward the beginning of the Polar Express route.

Lastly, local leaders and DHS representatives gave the third-place title to CHDC’s Physical and Occupational Therapy/Physical Therapy Orthotics Shop for the group’s Gingerbread Village display.

The judges said they were delighted and amazed by the participants’ creativity.

With opening night beginning Wednesday evening, officials encouraged residents from across central Arkansas to take part in the annual Polar Express event at CHDC.

“This is one of those events I always look forward to,” Mayor Bart Castleberry said. The Conway mayor brought two of his grandchildren to the event for a sneak-peak at the annual event. “It’s always festive and fun. Sarah and her crew really get into it. The young lady [CHDC Volunteer Council Coordinator LaQuetta Garlington-Seals] who put all this together did a great job. It’s a great event.”

DHS Division of Developmental Disabilities Services Director Melissa Stone said the Polar Express event helps show the community what CHDC is all about.

“This event is the epitome of what we try to do and lets others see what we do at CHDC while getting to meet our clients,” she said Monday.

The campus residents enjoy seeing and meeting new people each year while also getting a chance to showcase their talents, she said.

At the end of the 2019 display judging, CHDC staff handed out care packages with ornaments and Christmas cards that were respectively created and decorated by campus residents.

Christmas cards designed by three CHDC residents will be on sale during the Polar Express event for $11.99 ($13.10 including taxes). Packages include 10 cards and can be purchased by cash or check. All proceeds will go to the residents who made the cards.

Retired railroad employee Bob “Railroad Bob” Huber, retired machinist Jack Adams and retired heavy-equipment operator Bill Smith upkeep the campus gem to make the annual Polar Express event a success each year.

Railroad Bob said reliving his days on the railroad and brining joy to the campus residents is what the event is all about.

“I like working on it and being engineer. I really like being the engineer,” he said.

Sen. Jason Rapert said he was thankful for being a part of the judging event.

“We appreciate CHDC for always welcoming the community into this Christmas even as well as other events,” he said Monday. “I hope the people will come out for the neat program they’ve put together and to ride the train to support the good work all these employees do. Very special people work here.”

The event is open to the public from 5-8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday.

After touring the Polar Express route, attendees are encouraged to head over to “the North Pole,” where they can decorate ornaments and cookies or take photos with Santa. The event is free to attend, with the exception of pictures with Santa, which cost $5.

Staff writer Marisa Hicks can be reached at mhicks@thecabin.net.

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