Chris Johnson invites guests to join him at Arkansan of the Year and support the vital work of Easterseals Arkansas for individuals with disabilities.
By Barrett Gay | Photography by Dero Sanford
Taking on disability together.
This is the mantra of Easterseals Arkansas. It captures the organization’s culture of encouragement and measurable progress for children and adults with disabilities. And it certainly reflects the experience for Meredith and Chris Johnson and their eldest daughter Hannah.
Hannah, 18, has Cerebral Palsy, a congenital disorder that affects body movement and muscle coordination. But her fiercely independent spirit, paired with support + assistance from Easterseals Arkansas, has allowed her to thrive. She is currently a senior in high school and looks forward to going to college this fall.
Established in 1944, Easterseals Arkansas offers both inpatient and outpatient services, including a variety of therapeutic, educational and rehabilitative programs. Last year, the organization introduced ACCE: Academics, Community, Career Development and Employment. “The ACCE Program is a partnership with UA Little Rock to provide students with intellectual and developmental disabilities a college experience,” Easterseals Arkansas Marketing & Public Relations Coordinator Jillian McGehee explains. “It gives them an opportunity to get a taste of the college life, while also preparing them for employment. Academics, social support, work exploration and job placement are all components of the program.”
To generate critical support for this mission fulfillment work, Easterseals Arkansas hosts events throughout the year including Art & Soul, Fashion Event and Arkansan of the Year. Chris, principal financial officer for Dillard’s, Inc., thinks back to when Hannah was the featured artist at the inaugural Art & Soul. Art & Soul celebrates the creative expression of children and adults with limited use of their arms and hands, showcasing their original artwork for purchase. “Whenever Easterseals does any kind of event, you’re all in,” Chris notes. “You want to help because you obviously see firsthand the value of what they do.” In a touching gesture, the individual who bought Hannah’s artwork at that first auction gave it back to the Johnsons, and to this day it’s on display in their home.
Chris serves on the board of directors and says he is thrilled “to be associated with a group that does so much good for people.” In addition to his role as secretary, Chris is also making preparations for Arkansan of the Year as co-chairman with Gus Vratsinas, president of Vratsinas Enterprises, LLC. Bill Dillard II, chairman and CEO of Dillard’s, will be recognized as the 2018 Arkansan of the Year. Congruent with the Dillard’s tagline “The Style of Your Life,” the theme for this year’s gala will be “The Style of Giving.”
“Bill Dillard has shown tremendous compassion and generosity, both personally and through his company, and has touched many lives,” says Easterseals Arkansas President & CEO Elaine Eubank. “In addition to his financial support of Easterseals and other nonprofits in our community, Dillard’s commitment to our post-secondary program at UA Little Rock for students with disabilities makes his company a role model for other employers.”
“He loves the state of Arkansas. This is home to the Dillards,” Chris adds. “To be recognized as Arkansan of the Year is a huge honor, I know he’s very humbled by it. He doesn’t think he’s deserving of it, but in my eyes he is. Bill is the epitome of who you would want representing the state of Arkansas, and Easterseals too.”
Considering the joy he’s discovered through Easterseals Arkansas, Chris encourages fellow Arkansans to get involved. “God expects you to help those who can’t always help themselves. There’s no more rewarding experience than helping someone achieve their first walk when they’re three years old or speak their first words when they’re five. So either donating to help Easterseals find and keep the people who do those kinds of things or volunteering, I can’t think of anything more important.”