Thea Paves the Way

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By Kim Meyer Webb | Photography by Dero Sanford | Chalk art by Layet Johnson

   For nearly two decades, Thea Foundation has cultivated the arts in education through strategic partnerships and a shared belief that artistic expression acts as a conduit for academic success. Rusty Mathis was inspired by the story of Thea Leopolous and became an advocate for the organization’s mission to introduce the transformative power of art to students throughout Arkansas. As a member of Malvern National Bank Board of Directors, Rusty is proud that the bank continues its support of the foundation with innovative community events, like Thea Paves the Way, at its Central Arkansas location parking lots.

   Rusty’s career in the hospitality industry spans a lifetime. “I worked at the Holiday Inn Lake Hamilton right out of high school,” he recalls. “The general manager taught me how to make a bad situation better.” Throughout the years, Rusty followed opportunities back to Hot Springs – as a manager at the Sawmill Depot – and later back to Arkansas with Ben E. Keith Foods Mid-South Division. He remembers that advice from the Holiday Inn and uses his experience to bring out the best in people. This humble + happy perspective has certainly solidified Rusty’s reputation throughout the Capital City. “ Malvern National Bank President Mark Roberts elaborates, “Rusty is the epitome of a great leader. He sets an example of professional and civic excellence with an attitude that encourages others to join him. Under this direction, Ben E. Keith Foods has contributed time, products and resources to organizations across the state.”

   A mutual friend introduced Rusty to Paul Leopolous. “He wanted us to meet because we both lost children at similar ages. Paul told me about his daughter Thea and the foundation. I was completely on board at that point,” Rusty explains. “And, also on the board, the Thea Foundation Board of Directors that is.” With the help of colleagues in the emerging culinary scene and generous contributions by Ben E. Keith Foods, Blue Plate Special at the Capital Hotel was established. Proceeds from one of the tastiest evenings in Arkansas support Thea’s Art Closet, which provides supplemental art supplies and creative materials to Arkansas teachers. Last year, Thea’s Art Closet served more than 44,000 students. Thea Foundation Executive Director Nick Leopoulos elaborates, “This year, Thea Foundation opened the Art Closet before the school year started, knowing that teachers needed to secure supplies differently this year – some requesting individual supplies for students to prevent sharing and many with tech-related needs to enhance arts education for specific mediums.”

 width=   Despite CDC pandemic precautions, eliminating this fall’s Blue Plate Special presented by Malvern National Bank, constituents realized the critical need for general funding. With creativity and pragmatic leadership, National Malvern Bank hosted the annual Thea Paves the Way – a vibrant chalk art event – at its location parking lots. Nick sums it up best, “This is what our organization is all about – helping bring people together and supporting creative initiatives, getting people talking and expanding their outlook on education in the state.”

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