Leap of Faith
The reaction of Little Rock newcomers is usually the same—the city tends to surprise people with its natural beauty, big-city amenities and welcoming natives. And Dr. Ikemefuna “Ikem” Onyekwelu and his wife Crystal were no different. They never expected to move to central Arkansas, let alone fall in love with it.
The couple, who met in Kentucky while both working at the University of Louisville Hospital, are no strangers to relocation. They’ve done it a time or two (or three, or seven). When Ikem was young, his family decided to relocate from his hometown of Houston, Texas to Nigeria. He moved back to the U.S. after high school and moved a number of times more as he pursued his medical career. From undergrad in Philadelphia to Antigua for medical school to New York for two years of specialized training in orthopedic surgery and surgical pathology—”Dr. O,” as his patients call him, bounced around a lot.
Crystal also experienced her fair share of moving. The Kansas native hopped all over the country flanking her father’s military career.
After meeting and marrying, Ikem and Crystal landed in Minneapolis, Minnesota for his fellowship with the Twin Cities Spine Center for Orthopedic Spine Surgery. It was here that Ikem was first approached by an attending physician about another potential move—a big opportunity had popped up in the South. The attending physician explained to Ikem that a former classmate was looking for an orthopedic spine surgeon in Arkansas. The position was with OrthoArkansas in Little Rock.
“He urged me to go and check it out, [and] to show good faith… We [did],” Ikem said. “I was reluctant…because I didn’t know anything about [Arkansas;] I didn’t know anyone who lived here. We were pleasantly surprised and continue to be surprised. It’s become home.”
AN EASY SELL
When Ikem and Crystal came to visit, the OrthoArkansas team welcomed them with open arms, taking them to experience the city’s best restaurants. The Ortho team even took the curious recruits to tour schools and scout Metro neighborhoods. By the end of the trip, Ikem and Crystal were sold.
“I was ready to come to Little Rock,” Crystal said. “It [felt] like an easy, comfortable place to live. Also, we were pleasantly surprised by how diverse it is here. I’ve lived in the South and not all places in the South are created equal, so I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how ethnically and racially diverse it is [compared to what] I originally thought.”
Ikem finished his fellowship in Minneapolis while a seven-months pregnant Crystal moved a month early to nest before the birth of their daughter Vivian.
Ikem took the job with OrthoArkansas as a spine surgeon and has never looked back. He now serves the Little Rock and North Little Rock areas, plus neighboring towns and states in the Southeastern, Midwest and Southwestern regions of the U.S. Crystal, an experienced physical therapist, currently stays at home with their children, Christian and Vivian, as they continue to get acquainted with the Metro, with plans to return to her physical therapy career soon.
After choosing the Chenal Valley neighborhood in their new hometown, the couple wanted to plug into faith-based communities as soon as possible. Crystal heard about the Christian-affiliated group called “Side by Side – Little Rock” from one of Ikem’s partner’s spouses. The group was created to bring the spouses of those in the medical and dental field together.
She’s also been able to plug into parent groups through the kids' schools, Little Rock Christian Academy and Primrose School of West Little Rock.
“Even in Minneapolis, a lot of people come but they might not stay…and it’s hard to break into friend groups,” Crystal said. “But here, we found community right away.”
Having moved throughout her childhood, Crystal said she wanted something different for their children—to settle down and stay put. To give Christian and Vivian a stable childhood.
“We wanted to be able to give the kids a consistent school experience and have friends they’ve known since kindergarten,” she said.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
This tight-knit family has settled in well. In fact, Crystal’s parents now live here too. They own a large property in Paron (a rural suburb adjacent to Little Rock) where Ikem can hunt and enjoy the outdoors with his father-in-law.
All the Onyekwelus are active and fond of the Metro’s ample scenic beauty and natural amenities for recreation. They can be found hiking Pinnacle Mountain and other state parks, going to community parks and using their membership at the Little Rock Zoo. They also frequent Chenal Country Club, a private country club in Chenal Valley, where they enjoy the kid’s area, adults-only dining room and swimming pool. They’ve found community through the club and many other groups who have shared interests. Before COVID-19, Ikem was even plugged into a local polo club.
Christian and Vivian are acclimating great too, partaking in a number of local activities where they’ve made new friends and love to have fun. Christian enjoys playing soccer with the Arkansas Soccer Club and swim-safety lessons before school—he’s even tried karate. Vivian plays soccer too, and recently started dance classes at Rock City Dance.
“There's lots to do,” Ikem said. “You have the country club, a decent airport, a big medical center with advanced research available, high school football games, the Razorbacks and a rich history that’s not well-known. [Little Rock] is a nice kept secret.”
Best 6 Family Activities in Metro Little Rock
Ikem and Crystal highly recommend these activities, and it’s no wonder. The following are among the best bets for family fun in Metro Little Rock.
1. “When we first moved here, we discovered the honey festival at Bemis Honey Bee Farm, which was a blast, so we are always on the lookout for similar fun and different kinds of festivals,” Crystal said.
2. There’s a mountain to climb. Located in West Little Rock, Pinnacle Mountain State Park is certified as a Trail of Tears National Historic Site and boasts two trails to the top, panoramic views, a playground, and frequent events and educational experiences.
3. The Metro has a one-of-a-kind pedestrian bridge, the Big Dam Bridge, and miles upon miles of Arkansas River Trail to walk or pedal for fun or fitness.
4. Kids are obsessed with the Museum of Discovery. In addition to hands-on exhibits (like a TV weather station and tornado alley theater), the museum hosts cool events such as TinkerFest and Wiggle Worms.
5. The Little Rock Zoo is a treasure and keeps getting better and better. It recently opened new colobus monkey and serval cat habitats, in addition to its popular carousel, train, reptile house, cheetahs, penguins and more. Bonus: They’re frequently announcing the birth of even more zoo animals—the babies are always a big hit and locals even pitch in to name them.
6. North Little Rock’s Burns Park offers so many things to do, including walking trails, swimming, tennis and golf, but families are especially fond of the Funland amusement park with carnival-style rides for all ages.
THE LIST GOES ON & ON... Locals also love Heifer Village, Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library, Dickey-Stephens Park, The Wonder Place, Two Rivers Park, Urban Air, Big Rock Fun Park & Mini Golf, and All Aboard Restaurant & Grill.
Best way to stay active: “Little Rock Athletic Club or walking in our Chenal Valley neighborhood”
Happy hour hot spot: Petit & Keet (West Little Rock)
Favorite Shop: Anthropologie at The Promenade at Chenal (Chenal Valley)
Fave family-friendly festival: GloWild at the Little Rock Zoo (Midtown)
SEE FOR YOURSELF
Q: Best advice for another family considering a move here?
A: “Just come see; spend some time here—and you’ll have your answer,” Ikem said.