Shortly after the April 27 tornado ripped through the Arkansas communities of Vilonia and Mayflower, one Greenwood elementary school student hatched a plan to help.
After hearing the news that the EF4 tornado caused severe damage and claimed the lives of 16 people, the 9-year-old Evan Williams knew he had to extend a helping hand.
"I wanted to help because those schools were torn down by the tornado – all the damage it did to those houses and all of the resources they have for their town," said the son of Mandi and Justin Williams of Fort Smith. "I wanted to help them."
A third-grader at Westwood Elementary School, Williams decided the best way he could show support was to host a book drive in the Greenwood-Fort Smith region. He started the drive May 16 and asked for people to donate books appropriate for kindergartners through fourth-grade students to drop-off locations at Kerwins Sporting Goods in Fort Smith, all Greenwood Public School offices, the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce and at Phil Hicks Shelter Insurance in Greenwood; books are being accepted through June 10.
Feeling optimistic and inspired, Williams set the potentially challenging goal of collecting 1,000 books to give to the schools in Vilonia and Mayflower. Through his determination and strong word-of-mouth support in Greenwood and Fort Smith, he so far has collected 1,903 books.
"It’s very impressive that he came up with this idea on his own," said Mandi Williams of her son. "Evan was excited that he was able to get 1,903 books donated for his cause. That’s almost doubling his original goal."
Once Evan Williams heard the news of the tornado, he started brainstorming for ideas. He then sat down at a computer and "typed up his idea" before taking it to his teacher, Coti Brown, said Mandi Williams.
"It was great to see the communities help out — United Way donated 420 of the books," she said. "So many people helped."
The donated books range from Dr. Seuss titles and chapter books to a couple "Harry Potter" books and a few books written in Spanish, with most of the titles appearing to be "brand-new" books, Mandi Williams said. Some of them will be given to Vilonia school officials for a student book fair, while other books will be donated to teacher libraries in Mayflower, she said.
Williams, his 5-year-old sister, Emily, and their parents loaded the books, as well as 16 cases of bottled water that were donated by GPS special education staff member Paula McCann, into a family vehicle Tuesday morning and drove them to Vilonia. At least one more trip to transport donated books is planned.
"I know the librarians — Pam Pipkins in Mayflower and Faith Fisher and Rebecca Martin in Vilonia — are so excited about these books being donated," Mandi Williams said. "They’re excited to meet Evan."
Evan Williams said he hoped the books will help both with the students’ studies and with their recreational reading sessions.
"I like to read — I read 30 minutes every night," he said with a smile. "I like books on cars, and ‘Magic Tree House,’ ‘Ready, Freddie!’ and fantasy-chapter books."
Evan Williams also admitted to liking cars as well as books. The faster and funnier-looking the car, the better, he said.
"I like races, and I want an FJ Cruiser when I’m older," Williams said.
Mandi and Justin said they are proud of Evan for his commitment to the book drive and for his compassion for other Arkansas students.
"Evan has a very vivid imagination, and his teachers say he likes to read and research on a variety of topics," Mandi Williams said. "My mother-in-law, Beverly Williams, thinks Evan will grow up to be a writer, because he has such a great, creative imagination."
Evan Williams then smiled.
"I want to be an NFL player," he said before smiling again.
"Yes, Evan is very athletic, and he loves football and baseball," Justin Williams said.
"I want to be a defensive end for the Broncos," added Evan Williams.
Although Evan Williams isn’t sure what his next large-scale benefit effort will be in the future, his commitment to getting books into the hands of students in Vilonia and Mayflower can’t be contested, Justin Williams said.
"This is important so the kids can have books to read over the summer," Evan Williams said. "This is so they can get back the learning they lost in the tornado. It will help."