Johnelle Hunt at the Children’s Advocacy Center luncheon on October 13 where she was honored as 2016 Woman of Inspiration. (AMP photo by Shelby Styron)
Giving was a way of life for Johnelle Hunt well before the northwest Arkansas businesswoman chaired a sprawling real estate investment and development firm, long before she was worth $2.3 billion or gave away millions to non-profits that serve children and women.
She and her late husband, J.B. Hunt, founder of what is now one of the nation’s largest transportation companies, gave. So did her parents, who raised her in Heber Springs. Their lesson, Johnelle Hunt says, was: “It wasn’t so much the money you gave, but in helping other people. … If somebody out in the country needed to go to Little Rock to the doctor or something like that, my daddy would take them. As we got older, my brother would.”
In following the example of Johnelle’s parents, she and J.B. became known around the state for their generosity, which is what led the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Arkansas to honor her as its 2016 Woman of Inspiration. She accepted the honor on October 13 at the annual luncheon in Little Rock.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Mrs. Hunt said recently in an interview in her Hunt Ventures office in Rogers. “It’s not about me being there as a woman of inspiration – that’s not anything. It’s a way to get people to come together and be more aware … .”
The luncheon may encourage people “to step up and help this project,” she said.
Founded in 1999, what’s now called the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Arkansas is one of the state’s leading organizations that is dedicated to addressing the abuse of children through advocacy services, medical exams, forensic interviews, and therapy. “We bridge the gap between the innocent child, and the government and authorities,” says Arkansas First Lady Susan Hutchinson, the 2015 Arkansas Woman of Inspiration, a longtime CAC volunteer and a friend of Mrs. Hunt. “We make sure the child’s accounts are relayed accurately to the authorities.”
The CAC works with regional and national support agencies, as well as assisting 15 different community-based local CACs across the state, including a new one in El Dorado, according to CAC executive director Stacy Thompson.
CAC leaders have plenty of plans for the money they raise at the luncheon and through other donations. They hope to expand, and the next site is most likely Batesville, Mrs. Thompson said. “The community interest is there. We’re speaking with the governmental and partnering agencies, because we have to have a commitment on their end.”
For decades, nonprofit and public organizations that were launching projects to benefit children and women have looked toward the Hunts as potential donors. Johnelle Hunt donated $25,000 toward the construction of the Southern Region National Protection Center at Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville. It is the only center in the South, and one of only three in the nation, that trains current and future child-protection professionals to recognize, react to, and report child abuse.
The Hunt name is found on some of the biggest hospitals in the area. At Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville, the Johnelle Hunt Women’s Center offers women’s healthcare services that involve obstetricians, pediatricians, and neonatologists. In 2004, the Hunts gave $5 million to the Mercy Health System of Northwest Arkansas to help fund the construction of Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas in Rogers, and a dozen years later Johnelle Hunt contributed $1 million toward the construction of Arkansas Children’s Hospital’s new pediatric hospital scheduled to open in Springdale in 2018.
Springdale has always held a special place in the Hunts’ hearts. That’s where J.B. and Johnelle lived for 17 years after they moved to northwest Arkansas from Stuttgart. Their ties to the town are so strong that leaders established a J.B. Hunt Park and, not far north of that, a J.B. Hunt Elementary School.
The Hunts attended the school’s grand opening. “We were up on the stage, and each class would come on stage and do a little presentation and give us gifts. It was so great.” Each time they visited, they relished their conversations with the students.
In early December 2006, not long after J.B. told Johnelle he wanted to make sure to visit the school again, he slipped on ice near their Goshen home and hit his head. For much of the following five days, the business titan lay in a coma. Visitors streamed into his hospital room pay their respects.
“We had so many people there all the time during the day,” Mrs. Hunt recalls. “He fell on a Saturday, and on Monday they brought us a big box of cards. All these children – every child in that school – had taken construction paper and made get-well cards for him.
“One card said, ‘Mr. Hunt, I fell one day and hit my head, and I know how bad it hurts.’ Those cards got us through those five days, because everybody would come in and read the cards. It was the sweetest thing.”
He died on December 7. Soon afterward, the students arrived with another big box of cards, recalls Mrs. Hunt, who plans to visit the school again soon. “You know those are treasures – just treasures – to me. They helped me get through that time.”
The Hunts gave. And they received.