BENTON, Ark. – When forecasters reported the possibility of severe winter weather and bitterly cold temperatures earlier this month, community leaders in Benton and Saline County decided they were in desperate need of a warming center.
On Tuesday, Jan. 9, Benton Mayor Tom Farmer said several community members, including himself as well as County Judge Matt Brumley and First Baptist Church in Benton Missions/Executive Pastor Matt Hubbard, met to discuss the logistics of opening one.
“We had 24 people show up for a meeting that we called for on that Monday,” Farmer said. “Within an hour of our meeting we had everything set in place to open up a warming center.”
Northside Church of Christ, located next to Saline Memorial Hospital, offered its building to host the warming center. Another church covered the cost to have a police officer on site. Hubbard assisted in getting the warming center connected with Arkansas Baptist Disaster Relief (ABDR). ABDR deployed a feeding unit to the center to provide warm meals for those seeking shelter from the cold. Farmer noted seven churches and denominations were involved with the warming center.
“The community signed up and showed up. And God was in the middle of all of it. Every need we thought we needed was met by someone volunteering, God placing it on their hearts and them stepping up and doing it,” Farmer, who is also a member at First Baptist Church in Benton, said. “God’s hand was in every aspect of it. From the first time we had that meeting at 1 p.m. on that Tuesday until we got through (Sunday) at about 2 p.m. People who volunteered and worked it talk about what a blessing they received from meeting the people and getting to talk to them and how fortunate and blessed they are to pray for others.”
ABDR volunteer Debbie Norris said the feeding team was an all-Saline County crew of workers. They provided roughly 120 meals daily for men, women and children. Norris noted they had two pregnant women at the center give birth during the week.
“You just try to meet people at their point of need and serve them with the love of Jesus and share the love of Jesus with them,” Norris said. “I’ve heard lots of Gospel conversations going on as people sit around tables and visit and make puzzles, knit and different activities and things.”
According to the National Weather Service, daily record lows were broken (and shattered in some cases) at several locations on Jan. 15, including Batesville (Independence County), Hot Springs (Garland County), the Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville (Pulaski County), North Little Rock (Pulaski County), and Stuttgart (Arkansas County). There were numerous record cold highs in the teens and lower 20s.
The center opened at 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 14, just as temperatures began dropping and snow covered the ground. Initially, Farmer said they had planned to only have the warming center open through Wednesday. However, when they saw the threat of continued frigid temperatures, they decided to keep the center open through Sunday, Jan. 21.
This was Norris’ first time serving at a warming center through ABDR. She said it went very well.
“I think it is it is going to present opportunities for us to collaborate with local community agencies and other churches and show the true church of God, the church of Jesus. I’ve been real excited about that,” she said. Norris began serving with ABDR after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Farmer said the city and county are filled with compassionate people that care and love one another and that is all because of God.
“It’s not an individual anywhere. It’s God saying here it is. Here’s a great opportunity to share my love with people and that is what they did. They just loved on people,” he said. “It was a total county-wide effort. It was all a God thing.”