Running for Whittany: Family working to build girls’ home

by Sonja J. Keith

Friends and family of Whittany Atkinson recently participated in the Soaring Wings Half Marathon in hopes of making her dream of helping children come true.

Friends and family of Whittany Atkinson recently participated in the Soaring Wings Half Marathon in hopes of making her dream of helping children come true.

Whittany – the youngest daughter of Jim and Carol Atkinson of Conway – was critically injured in a four-wheeler accident July 16 during a family gathering near Petit Jean Mountain. The teen and her cousin, Hope Young, had gone for an ATV ride, like they had done many times before, when an accident occurred. Whittany was taken by air ambulance to a Little Rock hospital where she died the next day. Hope suffered minor injuries but has been deeply affected by the loss of her cousin and best friend.

“It was a freak accident,” Jim said. “Whittany went to be with Jesus on July 17.”

Family members describe Whittany as being “full of life” and “bubbly” with lots of friends. A member of the youth group at Central Baptist Church, she was a junior at Conway High School. She was the younger sibling of brother Wes (and sister-in-law Daphne) and sister Brittany.

Nearly 1,000 attended the funeral visitation for the teen. In lieu of flowers for the funeral, the family asked that monetary donations be made to Soaring Wings Ranch. Located on 195 acres in the Holland community, Soaring Wings provides a Christian home to young people in difficult situations who need a chance to grow up in a loving, Christ-centered home. Currently, there are two homes on the ranch – one for boys and one for girls.

The last week in August, the family toured Soaring Wings to learn more about the ministry, which was started by Andrew Watson and his wife, Marla. “That night, Andrew presented to our whole family that he and Marla had been praying and they wanted to work together to build the Whittany Rae Atkinson Home,” said Brittany.

“When we heard about Whittany’s love and concern for hurting children and about her desire for her parents to adopt, we knew we had to name the next girls home after her,” said Andrew. “Whittany also had a mature faith for such a young girl, and we desire to teach our girls through Whittany’s example that Jesus loves them, and that because life is brief we need to accept His gift of salvation while we can. That’s the mission of SWR, and who better to teach that to young girls who come our way than Whittany?

“Her story will be told for years to come.”

“Whittany had a heart for children who found themselves in need of a home,” Jim said. “After hearing news stories of children who had been mistreated or abused, she frequently asked her mother and I if we could adopt a child. She repeatedly asked us why we would not adopt children since we had extra room to accommodate them.”

Walkers/ runners who participated in the half- marathon in memory of Whittany Atkinson.

It was on that night in August that Jim decided to run in the half-marathon in his daughter’s honor to help build the next girls’ home at Soaring Wings Ranch. “Her departing has left a gaping hole in our family. This recent loss has taught us that there are many people who are in real need,” he said. “Although Whittany had a loving family who adored her, we have come to realize there are many children who will never know what real love is.”

Still working through their grief, the family is committed to helping build the 5,800-square-foot girls home, which will cost about $350,000 to build. “Our prayer has been that something good would come out of this bad situation,” Jim said.

In addition to Jim, other family members and friends signed up to participate in the half-marathon in memory of Whittany. Others volunteered to staff a water stop dedicated to the Conway teen.

“We ended up having 32 walkers and runners for Whittany and around 75 people who volunteered at her water station from family and friends to her DBS sorority,” said Brittany. “It was a very special day for our family to see all the support of our friends and family coming together to honor and remember Whittany by supporting Soaring Wings Ranch.”

Jim has had an active lifestyle but has never before run long distances. Not only was Soaring Wings his first half-marathon, it was his first organized race of any kind. “At age 52, I have never run more than a couple of miles much less a half marathon,” Jim said. Still, he crossed the finish line in 2:08. “For me, the half marathon was very physically and emotionally draining. It was a success for me and our family. We all completed the event with no problems.”

“Most of us on that Saturday morning did not know what to expect going into this race, only a few people in our group before Saturday had ever gone that far so it was such a neat experience to make memories and achieve new goals with our family and friends, one I will never forget,” said Brittany.

Understandably, Whittany’s family felt a range of emotions on race day.

“The half-marathon physically was not that difficult of a challenge walking it since there were so many people right alongside us walking and talking,” Brittany said. “The emotional part of the day was up and down.

“It was such a high and great feeling seeing how many people came together that Saturday and remembering back over the previous 12 weeks of training with family. That 12 weeks was so much more than training for our family. It was therapy. We laughed, talked, cried and spent our nights remembering our Whittany.

“That is a time I will cherish for the rest of my life. Many parts of the day of the race we listened to music, talked and laughed. At each water station, there were friends and church members that cheered us on and gave us the boost to keep going. It was awesome.”

Arriving at the water stop dedicated to Whittany was also met with mixed emotions.

“When we came to Whittany’s water station at Mile 9 I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t hold back the tears. To see how many family and friends came out to remember Whittany and how supportive everyone was, it was amazing,” Brittany said. “Whittany would have loved the pink.

According to Jim, the training and the fundraising for the home have given him an opportunity to spend his energy in a positive way. “It has been a release for me,” he said. “We have to keep living. You can’t stop living. Our faith keeps us going.”

Brittany said the large extended family of her mother’s and father’s sides have been deeply affected by Whittany’s death. Jim said both sides are very close because of their church and faith backgrounds. “I don’t know how people make it through tragedy without faith,” Brittany said, adding there is some comfort knowing that because of their faith they will see Whittany again.

“We know Whittany had that faith as well,” Jim said. “It makes it somewhat bearable.”

After the last participant made their way to Whittany’s water stop, the volunteers headed to the finish line to meet those who were running and walking in her memory. “It was very emotional to see family and just all the runners who had already finished the race just cheering us over the finish line,” said Brittany. “It was awesome.

“The whole half-marathon was such a great experience, seeing hundreds of volunteers come out. People just stood out along the race path and just cheered you on regardless if they knew you or not. It was amazing.”

Jim had hoped to raise $50,000 through sponsorships and pledges through his participation in the half-marathon. So far, he has collected a little more $37,000. “It’s a little short of our goal of $50,000 but we continue to get money almost every day,” Jim said. “I did have three $5,000 donations and one for $10,000 to go toward building the next girls home at Soaring Wings Ranch. We are planning more fundraising events and hope to get more people involved.”

The first $50,000 for the Whittany Rae Atkinson Home was made possible from the 2011 Crain Buick GMC Ranch Ride. Chris Crain and Jay Myers of the “Crain Team” were very instrumental in its success and felt it was a great fit to designate half of the proceeds to building the Whittany Rae Atkinson Home. Jim works at Crain as the general sales manager.

Tax deductible donations – made payable to The Whittany Rae Atkinson Home at SWR – can be mailed to Soaring Wings Ranch, P.O. Box 1670, Conway, AR 72033. For additional information, visit or

“Our family would like to help provide a ‘Rae’ of hope for young girls who have no hope or very little hope in this complicated world,” Jim said. “I’m doing it for a worthwhile cause in honor of my little girl who will get her dream of adopting a child.”