Barbecue Sauce PAVES THE WAY TO COLLEGE

Story by Jeannie Stone

Under the big oak trees at Old Post Park, a group of men fire up their barbecue grills. They perfect their award-winning barbecue chicken dinners, enabling the youth in the River Valley to further their education.

The River Valley Progressive Men’s Club is the group of men barbecue fans have come to love for their tasty chicken offered at ValleyFest, PickleFest, YellFest, and just about anywhere else folks congregate. The club is deeply committed to keeping the dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King alive by rewarding high school seniors, who epitomize his ideals, a little help in furthering their own dreams of attending college.

Every year, the club awards a minimum of $2,000 to seniors, with each receiving $500 toward college expenses. “We verify their enrollment before we cut the check,” member Stephen Pearson said. The club must follow regulations ascribed to their nonprofit standing.

“We are held accountable for all money we collect,” he said. “In fact, we just sent a member to a grant workshop to keep us aware of our requirements.”

“Between YellFest, PickleFest and the Autumn Ball, we raise about $12,000,” president James ‘Obie’ Woods said. “We couldn’t do it without the support of our families.”

“Actually, that’s how the Autumn Ball started. We wanted something for our wives and girlfriends, so they could dress up and have fun. It’s a fundraiser too, but it’s catered and everything. It’s held every November at the Hughes Center in Russellville, Colclough said.

The club also hosts the Martin Luther King Celebration Dinner at the Hughes Center. It is free to the public, and the evening is packed with entertainment and a guest speaker.

“One year, our guest speaker was Carmen White. She was the first person to receive a scholarship from us. She graduated from Baylor University, went to law school at Harvard and is an assistant district attorney in Dallas,” member Tony Pillow said.

It is evident the men are proud of White’s accomplishments as well as the other young adults who have benefited from the club’s generosity. They have no trouble listing the students who are currently in school at Tech, UCA, U of A, but balk when asked how many they have sponsored.

“We’d have to do some research,” they concurred.

Member Derwin Gilkey adds, “Some of the kids have sent thank you notes.”

“And we’ve had several kids come back in town and help us at our barbecue events,” member Rick Colclough says.

Pearson agrees, “They don’t forget us. They let us know how much we meant to them.”

“We work real hard. So far, we’ve never turned down any work opportunities. We’ve cooked at the Russellville and Dardanelle baseball games and the All-Star Tournament at Hickey Park, and we have cooked several years at the Special Olympics.

“Our wives prepare the decorations and desserts. They know how to place the settings at the table. They tell us we don’t know what we’re doing and to get out of the way, Woods says and laughs. “So, we go out and do our cooking thing.

And what a ‘cooking thing’ they do. At the 2008 ValleyFest, the group won second place in the Best Pork Ribs category, third place for the Secret BBQ Sauce category, first place in Best Kitchen, second place in Best Backyard Surprise, first place in Best Showmanship and Grand Champion for the third year in a row.

The club doesn’t only fund scholarships. They contribute annually to the American Cancer Society, sponsor basketball teams at the Boys and Girls club, provide funds for track meets and band camps for students unable to bear the financial costs, help with medical needs for young people whose families don’t have insurance coverage and provided funds which were used to purchase the Smart Boards, an interactive visual learning program at the Russellville Middle School.

“All it takes is an application with a submitted letter and a majority vote from our members,” president James ‘Obie’ Woods says.

A total of nineteen members belong to the club. “Anyone can join,” Woods said.

Currently, members represent Atkins, Russellville and Dardanelle. Some members are retired. Others work at Arkansas Nuclear One, Dow Chemicals, POM Industries and Hackney Ladish Manufacturing.

Of course, the Cunningham brothers, who own Cunningham Learning Center and BBQ on Highway 105 South in Atkins are members. Their restaurant is where the club meets at 7 p.m. every first Sunday evening of the month.

The club does accept tax-deductible donations. Pearson said, “We want to let everyone know that we put it all right back out there in the community. We don’t make anything off our meals. Our actual overhead is low because all the labor is free. Our only cost is food preparation. We all contribute out of our own pocket, and that’s is no secret.”

All the men laughed and agreed. But, don’t ask the apron-clad men to reveal the secret to their award-winning barbecue sauce. Some things are best left, well, secret.

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