Editor’s Note: This Times Record report is part of an ongoing series looking at the personal impact United Way partner agencies have on those in the Fort Smith area. The report focuses on the Boys and Girls Club of Paris.
Back in 1964, a smiling John Paul Wells was one of the first people to step through the doors of the Boys & Girls Club of Paris.
The lifelong Paris resident was only 9 when he first ventured into the club at its original location, 601 Patterson St. in Paris, yet he remembers that first time as if it were only yesterday. That day, the club began to serve as a healthy, educational alternative to a path of potential juvenile delinquency, Wells said.
“It cost 25 cents to get into the club that day, and you got a hat,” said the 59-year-old Wells, who served as state representative for the 84th District from 1995-2001 and co-owns and manages Wells Furniture in Paris. “I was first in line with some friends — I’m still great friends with those friends to this day — and we got to participate in baseball and track. It was great.”
A community partner of the United Way of Fort Smith Area and now located at 717 N. Fifth St., the club served members with an avenue for staying active and forging friendships to last decades, Wells said. It was rewarding for Wells to see his friendships with other members bloom, and he viewed the club’s adult staff and volunteers with equal affection and respect.
“I actually contribute my success — and the success of my friends there — to Bently Allen, the man who started the Paris club,” said Wells, a former City Council member who also works as fire chief for the city of Paris. “Mr. Allen was a math teacher for years in Paris, and he still works with the club there today. He was a huge influence on me, and I know that Mr. Allen will have crowns in heaven.”
As a coach for the club’s baseball and track activities, Allen used his positive words and forgiving nature to help shape club members, Wells said. Allen still tutors club members, he said.
“It was good because we kids were at the club, instead of getting into trouble somewhere else,” Wells said. “We spent a lot of days at the club — we were there all of the time — playing pool and ping pong. There was a little TV set up there, and then a pool was built next door.”
When Wells became a state representative, he acted in a “conservative-Democrat” manner, campaigning for programs that raised money for Boys and Girls Club programs.
“We raised money for the clubs in Paris and in Booneville,” he said. “I don’t know how much money we raised, but I know I wanted to give back to the club.”
Cheri Garcez, executive director for the club, calls Wells a role model for club members and community members alike.
“Mr. Wells still carries his Boys Club membership card from when he was a kid in his wallet now, and that’s awesome,” she said. “Any time I need some assistance with programs or services we provide, I’ll contact Mr. Wells and he is very willing to help. He loves the Boys and Girls Club here.”
The club offers a safe environment for children ages 4-18 via basketball, baseball, softball, football, soccer, cheerleading, boxing, golf, track and swim team programs. Other programs include an after-school snack, as well as the Torch Club, which teaches leadership, good citizenship, community service and more. Without these programs, children could not grow up to be productive adults like Wells, Garcez said.
“Mr. Wells is wonderful,” she said. “We see him everywhere, and he loves talking about the club.”
Wells and his wife, Michele, have three children and eight grandchildren. All of the children were club members, and their grandchildren are involved in club activities today.
“Yes, we have three generations of Boys and Girls Club members going; it’s been fun,” Wells said. “And I know that the Boys and Girls Club of Paris has saved lots and lots of kids in the Paris area. It’s helped kids who otherwise could have turned out to be unproductive citizens, but the club, Cheri and the United Way all have been excellent.”
Wells said he estimated that the club had 70 boys and girls as members that first year in 1964.
“Well, it seemed like 70 kids,” he said with a laugh. “I was 9 back then, so maybe I couldn’t quite count as well as I do today, but I know there were a lot of kids at the club.”
For information, call (479) 963-3577 or visit the club’s Facebook page.