Conway Noon Rotary Club to assume youth program

Mark Oliver
The Conway Noon Optimist Club is working with the Conway Noon Rotary Club to take over responsibility of the local youth football program.

by Mark Oliver

For nearly half a century, Conway Youth Football has served as the first step for young athletes in Faulkner County to discover their love for football. It has produced numerous Division I athletes, including former Arkansas Razorbacks and NFL star Peyton Hillis.  

Managed by volunteers within the Conway Noon Optimist Club, the program strives to teach not only fundamentals, but life lessons to be used off the gridiron as well. 

“Our program gives student athletes a really good fundamental base to football,” said Optimist Club Player Safety Coach Nick Toal. “It establishes the right things to do, the right way to tackle and the right way to block. Our goal is to let them have fun with it and get them to love the game. We see the benefit of being a part of the team — something bigger than themselves. That’s the most important lesson that these kids can learn.”

In recent years, the organization has seen a steady decrease in volunteers, putting the program’s future in jeopardy. 

“The popularity of social (service) clubs over the years has decreased and declined, and the number of people committed to our club has dwindled,” Toal said. “We are all volunteers. We don’t get paid for what we do. We’ve gotten to the point where our entire league is run by maybe five people. For the last couple of years, we have looked around for other clubs to pass the torch to because we don’t feel like we are doing the program justice with just five people. There are so many other opportunities that can be explored with more volunteers. We feel like we could really impact these athletes’ lives a little better than what we are doing.”

This fall, the long-standing athletic league will have a new home. Seeking new life for the program, Toal and his fellow Optimist Club volunteers found new hope within the Conway Noon Rotary Club.

“Due to a lack of warm bodies to help grow the program, we reached out to the Rotary Club for help,” Toal said. “We had them give us a presentation of their vision of it, and they laid out their plans. We thought it was a good fit. They are very youth focused. As a club, we made the decision that was the best way forward.”

For the Rotary Club, the decision to save the league was a no-brainer.

“When we were approved by the Optimist Club to consider taking on the program, we took it very seriously,” said outgoing Conway Noon Rotary Club President Aimee Prince. “This is a program that has been in Conway for around 50 years. After much consideration, we felt that it was important to the youth in our community, and we wanted to keep it moving forward.” 

“Our vision for the program is to continue to make it a community outreach program to instill values of hard work and determination,” said incoming Conway Noon Rotary Club President Cortney Cato. “I am excited to have a 9-year-old son playing football for the first time. I’m excited for the possibility of this program to continue in Conway both as a parent and as a community leader. As they grow up and become members of the community, the hope is that they give back to this community.”

To ensure a seamless transition, Toal and the other Optimist Club volunteers will remain with the program, which aims to resume this fall.

“We are currently meeting with the Rotary Club Football Committee to work on the transition plan,” Toal said. “What we decided is that the five of us who have been running the program previously are going to continue on and guide the Rotary Club through this transition. There’s a lot of moving parts to the program. It’s not difficult, but we want to set them up for success.”

Conway Youth Football dates back as early as the 1970s in Faulkner County, originally played in the outfield of the former Mountain View Softball Park in Conway before being moved to the YBMA fields. Today, games are played at Curtis Walker Park off Museum Road in Conway. 

“Our goal has always been to get kids into our program, become a positive impact on their lives and mentor them the best we can,” Toal said. “A lot of kids in our community may not have a steady figure in their life, and we see the league as an opportunity to try to help model for them the best we can.”

According to Toal, one of the biggest missions of the program has always been to level the playing field among its participants. 

“Conway is a very diverse socioeconomic town,” Toal said. “Because of that, everything we do is focused on ease of entry. Rich or poor, everyone is on an even playing field here. If your heart is in it, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish. We typically have around 350 kids each year, and most of them rent equipment from us, which ends up being much cheaper compared to other leagues out there.” 

With a new season fast approaching, the league is paying close attention to Arkansas’ regulations on youth athletics in a COVID-19 landscape. 

“Everything depends on the pandemic,” Toal said. “We are going to follow any recommendations that we can from the government. They are looking out for the safety of everyone. Our current goal is to start mid-August, and we are having bi-monthly meetings for a plan of action going forward. We are preparing for everything to be back to normal with some accommodations. This program is too valuable to not have it in our community.”

With new leadership comes new changes, and the future appears bright for Conway Youth Football.

“For the first few years, the program will look the same,” Prince said. “Over the next five to 10 years, our plan is to increase our reach by incorporating as many children as we can into the program. In addition to football, we would like to add a cheerleading program as well. We would love to see scholarships added to the program, as well as a community volunteer base to take charge and bring awareness of the program to our community.” 

Prince knows firsthand the importance of the program. “My son played Optimist football,” she said. “I know what it means to a parent. It’s such an important part of children being able to be involved in sports that they might not get to be involved in. We are over the moon to be able to help keep this program going.” 

To ensure the future success of the program, the Rotary Club is actively looking for volunteers to help jumpstart the new-look league.

“We need volunteers to make this work,” Cato said. “It’s a family, community project. My daughters will be working in the concession stand, and my son will be playing. We need coaches, press box workers, concession stand workers and other volunteers to keep this going. We encourage anyone who wants to get involved to reach out.” 

For more information on the league’s transition, fall season registration, scholarship opportunities and volunteering, check out Conway Noon Rotary Club on Facebook or visit conwayrotaryclub.org