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In celebration of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s first ten years, we collaborated with our friends at Crystal Bridges to feature a few of the remarkable people contributing to the well-being of the Northwest Arkansas community. 
Inspired by Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting Rosie the Riveter, which turns attention to the American women who worked in factories during World War II, these profiles feature individuals in our region who contribute in essential ways to the needs of our community. Each person highlighted works tirelessly, and often without fanfare, to spread hope and healing.
The portraits in this series will be on display in the Community Champions section of Crystal Bridges at 10, which will open to the public from July 11, 2021 to September 27, 2021. Crystal Bridges at 10 is an immersive exhibition with 10 distinct art experiences celebrating the museum’s collection and the local community one decade into the museum’s lifetime.
Photo by B. Watts Photography

Natalie Szymczak (she, her, hers), First Grade Teacher, Bentonville School District, Centerton, AR

“The goal is not for everyone to love you. The goal is for everyone to know how loved they are.” – Hosanna Wong

Natalie Szymczak (pronounced: zim-zak) knew she wanted to be a teacher when she was in third grade, and today she is a first-grade teacher. During the global pandemic, Natalie faced the same challenges as educators around the world, such as social distancing, mask wearing, cleaning protocols, hybrid learning, and glitchy technology. In reflecting on this past year, Natalie highlights the resilience of both her students and herself to achieve and learn.

Q&A w/ Natalie

Since you’ve been present in Northwest Arkansas, where are the places you have found community? What are some of the local places, past or present, you go to celebrate?

I am from Northwest Arkansas. I find community through various avenues. The main community I have is my family. The family members that live here are a support for me mentally and emotionally. I also find community with my coworkers. We work together for a common goal and go through valleys and mountain tops together. I am grateful for the community I have through the church, small group studies, and childhood friends that have evolved into adulthood friends. As a child, I loved to celebrate at the Razorback Rolling Rink which was in Rogers, Arkansas. There was always fun music and skating with friends as well as junk food and laughs and togetherness with my people. Restaurants are always a fun place to celebrate. When I was younger one of my favorite places to go to eat to celebrate was Glasgow’s. Other places we like to celebrate include Beaver Lake, local parks and pavilions, swimming pools, and splash parks. 

All of the artwork being featured in this exhibition traveled great distances before landing in Northwest Arkansas as part of the Crystal Bridges collection. What distances did you travel to arrive in Northwest Arkansas? When did you arrive? What about this place keeps you here?

My great-great-grandparents lived here so I am the fifth generation from my bloodline to live here. There has been a lot of change over the last 30 years. I adore my family so that is a large part of what kept me here in this area. For me, knowing my great-great-grandma and grandpa lived on the property where my mom lives now and that my great-grandpa passed away in the field near my grandparent’s old house makes me feel close to my heritage. The relationships with others who have lived here all their lives as well as the relationships with people who have moved into this area are another reason I love it here. That sense of belonging, acceptance, and encouragement I get from those in my immediate life is such a huge blessing for me. It is both a curse and a blessing to know that when I go into a store or a restaurant, I will most definitely see someone I know (haha). I also appreciate how most of the time the way the land is formed here causes the big storms to dissipate or veer off to the north or south. This is a comfort for me although we have still weathered a few intensely turbulent atmospheres. Also, this area is a perfect location where you can experience a little of all four seasons!

You are being recognized as part of this celebration, in part, because of the spirit of caring you bring to your interactions with others. To what and/or whom do you attribute the development of this spirit of caring to?

I am deeply compassionate and empathetic to a fault sometimes and I see good in others even when they are unkind and hurtful. Most of the time those that are unkind or hurtful are that way because they are suffering deep wounds, they may not even be aware of. I try to mentally and emotionally put myself into other people’s situations to try to understand them better. I think it is important when connecting with others to try and understand their perspective, thoughts, feelings, and life experiences as a way to both allow them to feel heard and valued but also as a way to become educated myself. I am not sure if my spirit of caring stems from staying curious about humankind or if my curiosity about humankind drives my spirit to care, but I am wondering if it is a little of both that keeps the cycle going.

Regarding the spirit of caring, I think it is important to remember that we can care for others, but we also need to care for ourselves and our own energy levels. I prayerfully ask for a spirit of discernment to be able to set boundaries in order to protect my emotional energy and save it for the people who want to connect deeply, vulnerably, and honestly. Caring for myself is equally as important as caring for others and a crucial aspect that allows me to care for others well.

Part of this project was about celebrating you in your role as a teacher, what led you to become a teacher? What do you enjoy most about this work?

I have always loved children and found myself able to connect with children sometimes better than adults. I had a third-grade teacher who invested in me and found value in me as her student and that was where the desire to become a teacher first began. As a teenager, I babysat children a lot and enjoyed learning from them as I took care of them. Children are so impressionable, honest, willing to learn, and curious about the world. This is what I love about them and why I wanted to become a teacher. Being a teacher allows me to hang out with the most amazing people on the planet regardless of their age or mine. They keep my inner child alive! What I value the most about teaching is getting to build relationships with families that sometimes last for years. In regards to teaching content, I appreciate getting to be a part of the experience when students realize they are reading for the first time or solving math problems on their own. I love getting to be a facilitator in a room where the kids become empowered because they are the ones sharing ideas and justifications for those ideas.  I hope that I have a positive impact on their future.

Who are some people or groups locally you are inspired by? Why?

I find myself inspired by others who want to help those who desire to get help but are struggling to do so.  There are several non-profit organizations in our area that lend themselves in this capacity by offering various resources such as food, housing, education, childcare, life skills classes, career opportunities, and health care, etc. Here are a few:

  • Havenwood – which is transitional housing for single parents and children, moving from crisis to self-sufficiency.
  • Nichole’s House which is transitional housing for women coming out of addiction
  • Restoration Village is a faith-based, long-term crisis shelter for women and children
  • Restoring Hope NWA is for women recovering from addiction or life-threatening situations and incarceration
  • Saving Grace is a long-term housing program for young women 18-24
  • Souls Harbor which is a transitional community for men in recovery

These places are just another reason why this community is so amazing.

Other groups that inspire me are the NWA Beautiful Girls Retreat and Centerton Cares.

What are some of the causes you are passionate about?

One cause I am passionate about is local and global missions that meet the physical and spiritual needs of others.

  • I have been blessed to be part of a fundraiser where we raised over $2000 to provide shoes that expand and grow for children in areas that are poverty-stricken and are at risk for soil-transmitted diseases. A local mission group was able to take these shoes to the community where they were able to bless several children in an orphanage.
  • I have also been graced with the opportunity to be involved in the prayer room for a few years to support the NWA Beautiful Girls retreat. I continue to pray over each girl that comes to me for prayer.
  • My husband and I contribute to Centerton Cares which is a nonprofit that supports the Centerton community through food pantries and community needs of all kinds.

What milestones, moments, victories and/or achievements in your life are you most proud of?

I was gifted with the honor of being a mom to my daughter, Erika, and a grandma to her son, Ezra. Experiencing life with them is such a blessing. Overcoming past fears, failures, and insecurities has been a victory that I give God the Glory for because I could not have done it without His grace and truth. I was honored to be nominated and chosen as the teacher of the year for my school twice in my career: once for the 2007-2008 school year and once for the 2018-2019 school year. In my younger years, I enjoyed writing poetry and as an amateur poet, I had a few pieces published between 1992 and 1996. I was blessed to be the first person in my family to graduate from college with a degree. Being recognized to be a part of this project for Crystal Bridges at 10 is an honor that continues to baffle me, and I am greatly humbled and grateful.

Let’s lighten it up a bit: What are some of your favorite places to eat in Northwest Arkansas?

Coffee: Kennedy Coffee and Scooters are my two favorites. There’s also The Coffee Container in Hiwasse that I have enjoyed a few times.

Places to eat: Sushi House, Crepes Paulette, Torchy’s, Tavola Trattoria, El Farolitos, Mirabella’s Table, Louise at Thaden Field, and Local Lime.

Ice Cream: Andy’s Frozen Custard, Me Latte Chocolate Creamery

What are you current favorite musicians or songs?

I appreciate various genres of music. I tend to listen to Air One Radio and KLRC 90.9 to help keep my mind and heart focused. Two songs I am currently enjoying are “KNOWN” by Tauren Wells and “Fear is a Liar” by Zach Williams.

Finally, Crystal Bridges at 10 was designed to both mark the museum’s first 10 years and set the precedent for the decade to come. Looking out into the future, what do you hope for our region and community?

My hope for our community is to continue to grow in diversity and thrive economically while maintaining an appreciation for the history of each individual community and the people and values that it has evolved from. I pray we will continue to educate ourselves on mental and emotional health and healing and respect that each person has a purpose and gift to offer for the greater good of our community.

Please list 10 things people should know about or do in Northwest Arkansas:

  • Terra Studios
  • Botanical Garden of the Ozarks
  • Museum of Native American History
  • Ride the Railroad Train
  • Visit Eureka Springs
  • University of Arkansas and any Razorback sporting event is a must
  • The Peel Museum and Botanical Garden
  • Rogers Historical Museum
  • Buffalo River
  • Hiking at Devil’s Den

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