'A model of dignity and respect'

by Ann Beene Gardner


It’s the word Shane Willbanks gives to describe his mother, Paula.

“There’s no other word for her,” he said. “It’s the No. 1 attribute she’s always had.”

Tressa Burnside, who works with Paula at Redemption Roadhouse café, describes her as “the cement that holds us together.”

The café is an important part of Life After Prison Ministries, founded by Mike Willbanks, Paula’s husband. Formerly known as Big House Burger Joint, Redemption Roadhouse is now a non-profit charity restaurant located inside the Lewis Livestock Sale Barn at 1100 South Amity Road in Conway. Paula is the café’s chairman of the board of directors, but volunteers at Redemption Roadhouse, with all profits going to the “Each 1 Feed 1” campaign, which feeds needy families in Faulkner County.

Recovering from personal struggles, Tressa said Paula’s encouragement makes working at the café an ideal job. “This is our safe place,” she said. “She’s my safe haven.”

Mike, Paula’s husband of 44 years, said his wife has always been someone special.

“She is a very generous woman that epitomizes everything a woman should be,” he said. 

For the women working at Redemption Roadhouse, having a woman like Paula leading the women’s side of the ministry is imperative. Her honesty is one thing that stands out to the other women.

“She told us how it was,” Tressa said. “She did it with dignity, on our level.”

For Tressa, Paula’s concern and determination make all the difference. “She’s an influence. She tells us to, ‘Get up off your butt and do something.’”

When the café first opened, Mike said the female employees at the café did not have a model of what to strive for as a woman. Then Paula began volunteering at the café, coming in early to bake desserts, such as coconut cream pie, pumpkin cheesecake and blueberry cheesecake.

“She put her hair up in a bun and wore a half apron,” Mike said. “One lady working here popped out the name, Flo, to describe her. She became a model of dignity and respect that the other women could learn from.”

Flo, a character from the 1980s TV series “Alice,” is the persona Paula is seen as to reach the female employees.

“We call her ‘Super-Flo,’” said Deborah Stark, who works at the café. 

“She has more energy than any of us. She has what most women will never have. She’s funny and smart. I’m glad to call her my friend.”

Barbie Willbanks, Paula’s daughter, calls her mother “a trooper.”

“No matter how much pain she is in, you’ll never know it. She lost both of her parents in 12 months. Many times she has carried the whole family.”

When a family member was convicted of a felony and later lived with her parents, Barbie said her parents still kept their door open and a bed ready for her if needed.

Barbie not only sees her mother as her hero, but as her support person, her best friend and “the wind beneath my wings.”

So where does Paula’s strength come from?

“She’ll tell you it comes from watching those around her struggle,” Shane said. “She looks at the struggles they go through, and it gives her strength to face her own struggles.”

The Book of James is one of her favorite books of the Bible, Shane said.

“She told me it helps her to read about embracing and rejoicing in trials,” he said. “When she finds herself in [a trial], she turns to the Book of James.”