Tonight, as the cold settles in, at least 2,800 kids in Fort Smith, Arkansas, won’t lie down in a bed of their own. The number, our closest estimate, is based on a formula developed by the nonprofit, Sleep in Heavenly Peace (SHP). Some of those children will huddle in recliners or on couches, others with a blanket on the floor. If they’re lucky, they’ll at least have a pillow for their head. When morning comes, they’ll rise, groggy from a restless night, not at all ready for the day ahead.
If attorney Seane Fry has his way, there will come a day when none of that is true. It’s not just a pipe dream. Seane is the president of Fort Smith’s chapter of the nonprofit SHP, which also serves Barling. The organization, started in Twin Falls, Idaho, in 2012, builds beds for children ages three to seventeen, free of charge. When Seane learned about the charity, he was in law school at U of A-Fayetteville. The year was 2018. Seane had been up late studying when a friend sent him an episode of Returning the Favor, a reality show with Dirty Jobs’ host Mike Rowe.
In it, Mike goes to Twin Falls, meets the founder of SHP, Luke Mickelson, and helps him deliver a set of handmade bunk beds to a grateful family. Before the reality star leaves, he surprises Luke with a new headquarters designed especially for the nonprofit, which now operates in the U.S. and Canada.
As he tells the story, Seane sits in his office at the Sebastian County Public Defender’s offices. Tall and fit at fifty-two years of age, he’s dressed in a gray suit, polished brown shoes, a pair of sunglasses tucked into his suitcoat pocket. His tie is just barely loosened, and he leans forward, elbows on his knees. “Seeing that video was the first I’d ever heard of Sleep in Heavenly Peace,” he says. “I still get watered up when I watch it; I’m a sucker for self-sacrifice. The next morning, I woke up and called my wife. I said, ‘Baby, guess what?’ I’d already researched how to start my own chapter. ‘We should do this!’ And she said, ‘Why don’t you wait until you graduate law school?’” Seane laughs. “It seemed like sage advice.”
Seane would graduate in 2020, work for a time in immigration law in Northwest Arkansas, and then settle back in Fort Smith. He and his wife, Tress, would open the charity in 2021, with Tress being the more accomplished carpenter. “What can I say?” Seane asks. “I bought her a router for Christmas, and she loved it.”
Before law school, Seane, a retired First Sergeant in the U.S. Army, taught JROTC at Northside High School in Fort Smith. When one of his best students became weary and disinterested, he wondered if she stayed up all night playing video games.
“One of my cadets was fifteen, I believe. In tenth grade. She started falling asleep in my class. I had her doing push-ups, a very good way of waking up. I got down beside her, and I said, ‘Why are you sleeping in class?’ She was a very good student. This was her daily routine. She gets out of school, goes home, takes care of her two younger siblings until her mother comes off her second job. At about eleven at night, the student would go to work and get off at five or six in the morning, take a nap, and make it to school. That really opened my eyes.”
He’d always felt he was helping his students; he missed it. When Seane learned about SHP, he was eager to enlist his skills to help again. “Think about the kids in our town that don’t have beds. Imagine having someone over to spend the night. You can’t. You go to your friend’s house to spend the night, and he’s got a bed. You sleep in a nest of blankets. Think how that impacts their school life, their self-confidence, health. Everything.”
Since the Fort Smith chapter opened in 2021, they’ve built 150 beds. Two hundred children remain on the waiting list. It might seem like a daunting task, but SHP has simplified the process. It starts locally with volunteer Jeannette Kynsi, who handles the applications for the beds. There’s a simple form at shpbeds.org to apply, and anyone in the community can suggest a child, or set up a donation. You can also find them on Facebook at SHPFortSmith.
There is a scheduled build day—the next one is November 11 in the Lowe’s Home Improvement parking lot in Fort Smith. Volunteers of all skill levels show up at eight o’clock in the morning to help build beds for four hours. Others help earlier and later with set-up and tear-down. Some stay for only an hour or two. All the help is appreciated.
Already, some regulars on the team have found their niche. “My seven-year-old niece runs the palm sander, and the rest of my brother’s family is always helping. We have a great-grandmother who’s on the drill press. We have the Shawn and Kira Moore family; they’ve been on every build and every delivery.” The local Project Linus group helps as well, making blankets for each bed. Seane mentions a host of other individuals, businesses, churches, and civic organizations that pitch in labor, donations, and support, including the Westphals and J.P. and Susie Hassett. There are far too many to list. But there is still a need for hands on deck for work days.
The second Saturday of each month is delivery day. The kids get a brand-new bed frame, mattress, pillow, bed sheets, blankets. Seane smiles as he says this. “I keep a rock, straight from the garden, on my desk at home,” he says. “The top half is painted green. It was a gift from a four-year-old girl who painted a rock for every person on the delivery team when she got her bed.”
Fort Smith’s SHP needs a volunteer communications and social media coordinator. “I didn’t even have a Facebook page until I joined SHP,” Seane says, “so I’m pretty hopeless.” The group also needs volunteer translators who speak Spanish, Vietnamese, and Laotian. One day, Seane would like to have a permanent location to keep supplies and do construction. Right now, they’re dependent on the weather since they work outdoors.
There are five SHP chapters in Arkansas, although Crawford County does not have one, and neither does Little Rock. In Oklahoma, the only one is in Oklahoma City. Seane is hopeful more will come, and not just for the kids’ sake.
He looks at his watch. The day is getting away from him. He talks about altruism in what he’s doing, or rather, the lack of altruism. For him, Sleep in Heavenly Peace is anything but a selfless endeavor. Sometimes, the joy is so visceral it seems like something he should pay for. As he said, he’s a sucker for stories of self-sacrifice. He just doesn’t understand that he’s one of the ones doing the sacrificing. He spends much of his time working with SHP. He spends weekends when he could otherwise de-stress from his work as a public defender. And yet, he has no concept that he’s giving up anything. Because of that and the multitudes of kind people who help him, 150 kids who once slept on nests of blankets on cold floors are snuggled in, dreaming sweet dreams, sleeping, thankfully, in peace.
SHP Build Day is November 11 at Lowe’s in Fort Smith. Set up at 6a, building from 8a-12p, no experience needed! Contact the Fort Smith Chapter of Sleep in Heavenly Peace at shpbeds.org or find them on Facebook at SHPFortSmith.