To say my first road trip as a staff member at Communities Unlimited (CU) was eye-opening would be an understatement.

I started at CU on March 11, 2024, so I am brand new to the company. Being on my first road trip and not knowing what to expect made me nervous. However, as the Staff Writer, I have used the last few weeks to hit the ground running, be a sponge, and learn as much as I can about the company.

So, when Chris Baker, CU’s Digital Content Coordinator, approached me with the idea to tag along on a three-day road trip to LeFlore County, Oklahoma and Lewisville, Arkansas, I couldn’t think of a better opportunity to learn about CU than to be out in the field and see how we operate with clients firsthand. Chris and I left the Fayetteville office early on Tuesday, March 26th. We drove one hour and 30 minutes to rural Hodgen, Oklahoma, where we arrived at Rural Water District #17 in LeFlore County and met with Gaylene Riley, Oklahoma State Coordinator on the Environmental Services Team.

The purpose of this trip was to document potential stories so we can create multimedia content. Rural Water District #17 LeFlore County certainly had a story to tell as they have faced numerous challenges during its construction and subsequent management, including inadequate oversight, contractor misconduct, and years of neglect leading to water quality issues.

However, there were several dedicated individuals, including LeFlore’s water operator John Butler, and community support that transformed the district’s trajectory. Through legal action, careful documentation, and strategic planning, the district successfully addressed past issues and secured grants for upgrades and improvements.

CU Staff Writer Derek Shore flies a drone to capture footage of work at Leflore Rural Water District #17
CU Staff Writer Derek Shore flies a drone to capture footage of work at Leflore Rural Water District #17

With a renewed commitment to sustainability and community engagement, RWD#17 LeFlore is poised to provide water service for generations to come. It was neat to interview Mr. Butler and talk about where LeFlore was, where they are now, and how they are set up for the future.

Chris and I also got the opportunity to interview members of CU’s Environmental Services and Lending Team. Gaylene Riley, CU’s Oklahoma State Coordinator, has been working in LeFlore County since 1998 and spoke with so much passion about being able to help this rural community. Chris Ranniger, CU’s Environmental Lender, also spoke about his incredible efforts on the lending side.

Not only that, me and Chris captured “B-roll” footage of a water hole getting dug by area workers nearby. I flew my drone and collected both aerial photos and videos of the beautiful scenery in LeFlore County. We ended the day eating a delicious, homemade lunch provided by the kind and welcoming RWD#17 LeFlore board.

Then me and Chris were off to Texarkana, Arkansas where we stayed the next two nights, putting us 30 minutes from Lewisville. On Wednesday, we connected with CU’s Community Sustainability Team and met with Community Facilitator Deanna O’Malley at the Texarkana office.

After that, we made our way to Lewisville, a town with a rich history. However, from the moment you turn off U.S. Hwy 82 to go downtown, the town’s struggles are evident. The hardships are so real that Lewisville has just two businesses that remain open downtown – a pawn shop and sporting goods retail store – owned and operated by one person. Both stores closed on April 10, 2024.

As Lewisville Mayor Ethan Dunbar said, “Lewisville is a town that’s on life support.”

Lewisville has a lot of work to do before they turn things around. That said, Chris and I spent much of Wednesday and Thursday conducting interviews with locals around town. The consensus was abundantly clear: People from Lewisville were proud to call Lewisville home. Everyone spoke eloquently, passionately, and with optimism that Lewisville can thrive and prosper.

CU staff writer Derek Shore interviews a Lewisville, AR resident on a recent content gathering trip for our Community Sustainability Team
CU staff writer Derek Shore interviews a Lewisville, AR resident on a recent content gathering trip for our Community Sustainability Team

Walking downtown with Chris and Deanna you could feel the potential. There is a historical piece to Lewisville that makes it attractive. There is continuous traffic right off U.S. Hwy 82 – just 30 miles from Texarkana. It’s also the birthplace of a renowned barbeque joint called Burge’s which has been in business 61 years.

On top of interviews, Chris and I took B-roll footage in Lewisville. I captured aerial photos and videos of downtown Lewisville, the town’s vibrant park, and water towers. I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of content this leads to because this is a community that deserves attention. It deserves to shine again.

Overall, my first road trip at CU was eye opening. First, because it was a new experience for me. Secondly, I am thankful to work with fantastic people and to be able to tell the stories of what great things we do.

This was just a small sample of the work CU is involved in, and I’m glad I was able to experience this despite just being a few weeks on the job.