HIGH PROFILE: Valerie Pruitt, chairman of Youth Home’s annual Eggshibition fundraiser
Valerie Pruitt chose her family over pursuing advancement in a larger journalism market. As it turns out, her own children aren’t the only ones who benefited from that decision.
The career path she opted for focused largely on helping children and families, so her choice to join the Youth Home Board eight years ago was a natural progression.
She served last year as board president for Youth Home, a nonprofit organization that offers mental health treatment services and programs for children ages 12 to 17, as well as for their families.
“It’s a wonderful organization,” Pruitt says. “Mental illness is so taboo, especially in the African-American community. There are so many pressures on us — children as well as adults — and there’s nothing wrong with seeking help when there are a lot of things going on inside of you that are making you not function.”
Serving as chairman of the organization’s annual fundraiser, Eggshibition, was initially daunting for Pruitt, who is admittedly a bit shy.
“The good thing is Youth Home has been around for 50-plus years,” Pruitt says. “Eggshibition is in year 27, so people know about Youth Home, but there are still people who don’t know exactly what it is or what it does, so that’s part of the job of being chair.”
Eggshibition will be held Friday, beginning with a patron reception at 6 p.m., in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Jack Stephens Center. Tickets bought before Thursday are $85 for patrons or $60 for general admission. Tickets at the door will be $100 for patrons or $70 for general admission.
Artwork created by well-known and new artists will be auctioned at Eggshibition. The original concept for the event involved eggs as symbols of growth and reinvention for children and families affected by mental illness, so many of the auction items start with eggs.
Featured this year are a Frank Broyles memorial egg and several blown glass designs by James Hayes.
“I like the autographed eggs and the eggs that look like people,” says Beth Coulson, a lifetime Youth Home board member. “In fact, there’s a Donald Trump egg that I hope some Republican enjoys.”
It was Coulson who got Pruitt involved with Youth Home.
“I thought she would be an excellent board member, and she has been,” Coulson says. “She is happy to do any task that’s assigned to her, whether it’s large or small. She has a very loving spirit, and she has a very keen interest in helping Little Rock’s youth.”
Pruitt moved to Little Rock from Pine Bluff when she was 5 because her father, Duggar Johnson, became the pastor of Saint Mark Baptist Church. Johnson, who served there for 15 years, died in 1993.
“We just had our 125th church anniversary at Saint Mark Baptist Church, which is now the largest African-American congregation in the state,” Pruitt says. “My dad was honored. My mom and my siblings and I are still members there, and we were honored for being members 50 years plus.”
Her family owned a community grocery store and, for a while, lived in the back of the business. Watching her father interact with patrons and congregants made her who she is today, she says.
“He was the type of person who saw a person’s needs, and he felt responsible for helping them with those needs, and I look now and I think, wow, I didn’t realize that as a child I was absorbing all that,” she says. “When someone passed away he was there to support the family. He had this credit system at the store so you could come and get things on credit. If your payday wasn’t until Friday, but you needed food on Monday, he would give you that credit. Some didn’t pay him back — but most did.”
Pruitt’s mother, Carrie Johnson, is 90 and still lives in the home the family moved into 51 years ago. She helped in the grocery store and with her husband’s pastoral work, but mostly she was at home with Pruitt and her two siblings.
“That is really an awesome thing that my mom was always there,” Pruitt says. “You know, people are not fortunate enough to be able to do that now. I get that from her, that nurturing spirit.”
The whole family gathers at her house on Sundays after church. Before the church moved from Gaines Street to Twelfth Street, they walked to her house after the service.
“We were only one and a half blocks from the church. In fact, you could walk out mom’s back door and go down a little alleyway and you’d be right there at the back door at the church,” Pruitt says. “Everyone would pack their clothes and go to Mom’s house after church and everybody would be there at the same time because we were coming right from church. Now it’s a little different. We all end up over there at some point in time, but some get there before others.”
Pruitt went to Ish, Rightsell and Washington elementary schools, Dunbar Junior High and Central High School. She graduated from UALR in 1980 with a bachelor of arts degree in broadcasting, with a minor in journalism.
“My first job in radio was the old KAAY, ‘The Mighty Ten-Ninety,'” she says. “I was a news reporter there. Something most people don’t know about me is that I’m shy. You don’t know that about me because I’m so involved. My job at KAAY took me out of that introvertedness.”
On the first day, her station manager told her to simply walk into a legislative subcommittee meeting and plunk down the tape recorder and microphone in front of the person talking.
“I said, ‘Oh, well, that’s easy.’ Well, I walked in the Capitol, and I walked in the meeting room and, oh my god, there were so many people in that room because there was a big issue in education that day,” Pruitt says. “I just stopped at the door and I said how in the world am I going to do this? But then I said, ‘It’s my first day on the job, and if I go back without any sound he’s going to fire me.’ So I just walked up there and I set my microphone on the table, and I bet I was sweating like a hog.”
From KAAY she moved to the city desk at the Arkansas Gazette and then to KUAR-FM, where she did the morning news edition. She brought the station on the air at 6 a.m., and she took her oldest daughter, Nicole, to work with her. Nicole slept on a couch in the station until it was time for school.
“It was great that my station manager allowed me to do that,” Pruitt says. “My daughter and I talk now about what we heard on NPR because she’s a public radio person — she grew up with it.”
Pruitt left KUAR for the nonprofit sector, with jobs at Watershed, Pulaski County Youth Services and New Futures for Youth.
“I had about 10 years in nonprofits, and all those programs focused on children and families, really focusing on providing and seeking out resources that would make the lives of children and families better,” Pruitt says.
Pulaski County Juvenile Judge Joyce Williams Warren met Pruitt through her work with Pulaski County Youth Services.
“Her mom moved into the house where my mom, my sister and I had lived before on 32nd Street,” Warren says. “She would see my and my sister’s hand or footprints in the driveway when the concrete was poured.”
SEND HER A DRINK
Warren’s husband, James, introduced Pruitt to her late husband, Robert Pruitt. Robert and another man were sitting at the table next to the one where Valerie and the Warrens were eating at the now-defunct Hank’s Dog House, and Robert Pruitt sent Valerie a drink.
“I thought it was the other guy,” Pruitt says.
James Warren set the record straight and introduced them that night.
Robert Pruitt died in 2010.
“Robert and I were married for 10 years. We were soul mates,” Pruitt says.
He worked for the U.S. Small Business Administration.
“He started out as a loan officer for the minority part of the Small Business Administration, so he helped African-Americans and other minorities obtain loans through the Small Business Administration,” Pruitt says. “My father bought a bigger grocery store, an IGA grocery store, and Robert was the loan officer for my dad. So it turned out he knew my dad — he and my dad were actually very good friends.”
Joyce Warren and Pruitt are both members of E’lite, a club made up of professional minority women.
“She’s politically active, community-minded and socially active, concerned about the development of kids and families and just about making society better,” Warren says of Pruitt. “She’s just one of those kind of people who quietly goes about doing her stuff and doesn’t toot her horn.”
Barbara Graves, too, notes Pruitt’s calm demeanor.
“Val is one of the rock steadiest people I know. She always does every task with grace and with a smile. She doesn’t get flustered,” Graves says.
Graves’ children and grandchildren call Pruitt “Auntie Val.”
Pruitt helped with a special project in Graves’ former Intimate Fashions store, and a few years after she ran for a city board position herself she served as campaign coordinator for Graves’ run for Little Rock mayor and later for state Senate.
“We were together all the time,” Pruitt says. “We had the same family values and when you have so much in common with a person you really bond with them. We became friends during the campaign, and I feel like I’ve known Barbara my whole life.”
Graves keeps up with Pruitt’s children — Nicole Mack lives in Atlanta now, while her daughter Deborah Dawson and her son Lloyd Dawson Jr. both live in Little Rock, and she has eight grandchildren — as well as what’s happening in her personal and professional life.
Six months ago, Pruitt accepted a new position with the Reform Alliance, a nonprofit that supports school choice opportunities.
“I’ve always been an advocate for school choice. That one-size-in-education model doesn’t work for everyone. Also, with my job we are working with the Department of Education to implement the Succeed Scholarship, which is a scholarship for children who have [Individual Education Programs] and if these children are in a public school that’s not working for them they can allocate $6,700 that they are eligible for to fund a private school that fits their needs.”
Pruitt’s children went to public schools, but they have made different choices for their own children –home-schooling, charter schools and private schools.
“Education is so important to me, and I feel that families know their children better than anyone else,” she says. “I know there’s a controversy about educational option, and that’s OK but I feel that we need to focus on children instead of on whether this is a Democrat or a Republican issue — it’s a nonpartisan issue.”
Pruitt initially left the nonprofit sector for a position at Comcast Corporation.
“I got a chance to do radio, I got a chance to do newspapers, and then I got a chance to do television,” she says. “I did a public affairs show called ‘In Depth’ for about 15 years. It focused on issues affecting our community as well as community events. At Comcast I served as public affairs director and also station manager of Channel 14, which was called the public access channel.”
In 2012 Pruitt served as deputy field director for a statewide nonpartisan campaign — the Arkansas Voter Registration Project — which registered 65,000 Arkansans to vote. Most recently she taught a 2-year-old class in a Montessori school.
“That started out as a volunteer thing,” says Pruitt, whose grandson attended that school when he was younger. “It sort of evolved into a teaching job. I think a lot of people would be surprised that I was a teacher.”
Pruitt is happy with the path her life has taken.
“I could have decided to move on to Atlanta or some bigger market and do what I really felt like I was good at, but my children have always been the center of my universe, and Little Rock is such a great place to raise children. Rather than going for the big spotlight I decided to do what I love, which is communicating, and just do it here,” she says. “I’ve always been able to get along with people, especially now when I’m dealing with educational options. That’s something people don’t all agree on, but I felt really strong about taking this job because … of the communication and the relationships I’ve built in the community. No matter where you are on an issue you’ve got to be able to sit down and talk.”
She has made many connections through her work and volunteerism, and sometimes knowing the right people is what matters most.
“I’ve been in contact with and built relationships with so many diverse people. I just hope I can continue that in my life to bring people together,” Pruitt says. “I guess we all could look back and think of things we wish we had done differently, but as for the life I chose, living here in Little Rock and raising my children — Little Rock is a beautiful city and I’ve been able to watch it grow. I guess I have no regrets.”