Chocolate builds community

Food / January 16, 2017

Chocolate has been a coveted foodstuff for thousands of years, beginning as a cacao beverage in Mesoamerica, then making its way to Europe via explorers like Christopher Columbus during the 1500s.

For modern America, the treat has become a multibillion dollar industry, and vast numbers of citizens consume an average of 11 pounds annually.

In Hot Springs, the sweet delight takes center stage each February, when the annual Chocolate Festival is held as a fundraiser for Cooperative Christian Ministries & Clinic.

The host, Embassy Suites Hot Springs — Hotel & Spa and General Manager Kurt Schatzl, originated the event to benefit an area nonprofit, wanting to raise funds for a free clinic.

CCMC Executive Director Lynn Blankenship said the festival provides

Line cook Jessica Archer, left, and banquet cook Cecilia Mendez, of the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa, prepare a dessert display during the seventh annual Chocolate Festival in 2011.

Line cook Jessica Archer, left, and banquet cook Cecilia Mendez, of the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa, prepare a dessert display during the seventh annual Chocolate Festival in 2011.

some 10 percent of the clinic’s operational funds for the year, proving that chocolate is indeed popular. Avenues of income from the event include ticket sales and silent auction purchases, in addition to donations.

In 2017, the 13th annual festival will be held from 1-3 p.m. Feb. 5 in the Embassy Suites lobby, and guests will be able to sample confections like cupcakes, ice cream, brownies and cookies, along with flavored or filled individual chocolate pieces.

Vendors supply 800 servings of their own chocolate creations, all handed out from elaborately decorated booths. A panel of judges deliberate and choose awards for presentation and flavor, then a third award is chosen by popular vote.

Winners in 2016 were the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa for Best Taste, Bliss as Best of Show, and Fat Bottomed Girl’s Cupcake Shoppe took People’s Choice.

All three will be present this year to defend their titles.

Blankenship said vendor participation is open to any group, and she’s seen winners from realty groups, schools, bakeries and restaurants alike.

Both former and current CCMC clients give back by volunteering at the festival, and a number of local agencies also send volunteers each year. Sponsor positions are available for individuals or organizations who would like to contribute monetarily.

CCMC will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2017, and much has changed in that time. Though residents are still seen in the clinic, since the Affordable Care Act was passed, the actual medical needs are fewer, as more people qualify for insurance. Because of that, CCMC is now able to provide services to benefit clients more wholly, like through its Getting Ahead program and Bridges Out of Poverty focus. Blankenship said these strategies promote “healing in lives,” instead of just healing in the body.

She described the Getting Ahead curriculum as “a self-discovery process that helps the participant identify where they are in all of their resources,” then they learn how to utilize their strengths to build their Chocolate Festivalweaknesses. She explained that poverty is going without resources in general — not just monetary, but in 11 different areas, including emotional, housing, physical, network building, nutrition, transportation and stability.

One woman from that program’s first class is now employed in a management position, and deciding how she will invest her 401(k) — something she’d never even heard of a couple years ago.

Other graduates take part in community change by sitting on a task force, making sure their voices and needs are heard, or through discussions with Spa City leaders and policy makers during monthly meetings held at 8 a.m. on the third Wednesday of each month in the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce, to which the public is welcome.

It’s the ability for face-to-face client involvement and seeing changes in people’s lives that keep Blankenship excited about her job and the clinic. She said, “People go to church, typically, to see God’s work, and I get to see it here every day.”

Collaboration with other agencies is another ingredient for the continued success of the clinic. CCMC works with local hospitals and physicians for some medical services, and with the Garland County Detention Center, Potter’s Clay, Hope Movement and Samaritan Ministries to provide Getting Ahead curriculum to people served by those entities.

Other organizations, like First Baptist Church, First United Methodist, The Garage Church and the Hot Springs Housing Authority, provide venues for classes, and many Garland County dentists generously donate time to see Getting Ahead graduates who are in need of dental work.

With so much community collaboration, it’s only fitting that CCMC’s largest fundraiser be a community event, too. Each person who attends the Chocolate Festival is supporting others who haven’t had the same advantages in life — a sweet gift, indeed.

Ticket prices are $15 in advance or $20 at the door, and can be purchased online at, at the clinic, 133 Arbor St., or inside Embassy Suites, 400 Convention Blvd. For those who’d like to feast at the event, but don’t want to stand in line, VIP tickets are available for $50 each.

For information on becoming a sponsor, vendor or volunteer, call 318-1153.

Lorien Dahl

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January 16, 2017