The parking lot at the Boys and Girls Club of Van Buren was almost at overflow capacity Wednesday evening as close to 500 children and their families gathered for a Step Up, Speak Out block party.
Free food and drinks, live entertainment, games and giveaways were the draw for the event to raise awareness of abuse of children, both physical and sexual.
"It was quite the deal," said Jackie Krutsch, director of the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce. "The face of one of the little girls when she won a pink bike was tremendous. She almost made me cry."
Step Up, Speak Up block parties also were held in Fort Smith, Greenwood and Lavaca.
Mayor Bob Freeman opened the Van Buren event by urging the children to be good listeners.
"I wish there was no reason to be here to hold an event for this," Freeman said. "My prayer is that in the future we will not have to hold one of these."
Police Chief Kenneth Bell noted that child abuse is real in Van Buren.
"If you know someone who is a victim," he said, "let someone know."
Sheriff Ron Brown said if one abused child "steps up and speaks out" Wednesday’s event accomplished its goal.
"A big thank you goes out to the organizations and many others who have placed the safety and needs of our children first," Krutsch said. "We have such a caring community. I am so glad that SUSO has spread to the region, increasing awareness and improving safety for our children. It was great to have just a little part in this."
Booths offering games and informative material were set up by the boys and girls club, Kiwanis Club, BACA, Mary Kay Cosmetics, Optimist Club, CASA of Crawford County and GFWC Women’s League of Van Buren.
There was face painting, ring toss and football toss. Children also received free T-shirts, coloring books and bracelets.
Citizens Bank & Trust grilled 1,000 hot dogs donated by Arkansas Food Bank. Arvest Bank provided suckers and balloons for the kids.
Lee Prince, a rapper and hip hop artist, performed.
Given away as door prizes were a Kindle Fire donated by Heritage United Methodist Church, two bicycles and a skateboard from Fort Smith Area United Way and two bikes from GFWC Women’s League of Van Buren.
While the children enjoyed the fall weather outdoors, Detective Donald Eversole and Jonathan Wear of the Van Buren Police Department spoke to adults about Internet stalking of children, computer pornography and cyber bullying.
"The worst sex offender is the one we have not caught yet," Eversole said. "They want to be normal so they don’t get caught."
Eversole said Van Buren has led the statet for the last four years in arresting Internet predators, including 60 last year.
Wear said 13,000 sex offenders are registered in Arkansas, including 57 in Van Buren, eight in Alma and 140 in the remainder of the county.
Krutsch praised the efforts of Cindy Faldon, director of the Boys and Girls Club of Van Buren, in organizing the event.
"She was always one step ahead in planning and securing volunteers, organizations and donors," Krutsch said.
The River Valley’s first Step Up, Speak Out event was organized by Jackie Hamilton of the Hamilton House and Sam T. Sicard of First National Bank.