When John Baltes turned off his light at the Silver Dollar City Foundation this week, he was at peace with what he accomplished in that office – the little white house on Highway 76 that was once Mary Herschend’s home.
The dark office shined a light on an amazing 50+ year career that took him from Sea World to Silver Dollar City and later as the founder of a Foundation that’s raised more than $2.3 million for local children.
“How blessed I am that I’ve had basically two, 25-year careers,” Baltes smiles. “I was able to make money for theme parks for the first part and give money away in my second part.
It took both of those parts to equal the steady, confident leader John is to this day. He reflects on his journey with many smiles, some somber pauses, and lots of laughs.
As he watches Silver Dollar City this week turn into a Christmas wonderland, he remembers back to how that all started when he was the park’s general manager. It was in the early 1990s when a casual conversation turned The City into what would become a top holiday destination.
“Jack Herschend wanted to do some type of Christmas festival at the park but wondered whether people would come,” Baltes laughs. “Would it be too cold? Would people bundle up their kids and come out? I joke that he gave me $100,000 to create something magical but said don’t spend it all. And $99,900 later, the rest is history!”
Helping pioneer An Old Time Christmas is John’s greatest accomplishment from that first part of his career, he says. It’s that second part, though, that turned his hard work into “heart” work. At the time, Silver Dollar City was giving to various charities in the community.
“But, we wanted to have a huge impact,” he recalls. “We brainstormed how we could consolidate our giving into one place to help the most people so, in 1996, we launched the Silver Dollar City Foundation.”
John and his team researched what needs weren’t being met in the community by other charities. What gaps could the Foundation fill?
“That’s when we really took a hard look at rural schools. The needs were so great,” he says. “Teachers were using their own money to help students with basic needs like medicine, coats, and shoes. That wasn’t right, so in 2006, the Foundation started Care For Kids from that void.”
In its early years, the goal of the Foundation was to simply meet those physical needs.
“Those were the stories. We knew we wanted to tell the story of the kids,” John says. “Once we started listening to the stories -- from the bus drivers to the teachers -- it then became obvious it wasn’t about the money. Each one of those things was an act of love. The children knew they were loved by the act of kindness. Love and hope became the story!”
And, while John’s own story at the Foundation is in its final chapter, he knows there’s so much more to write.
“I think back on 18 years of Care For Kids. That’s five classes of kids who graduated after having the program in their school from Kindergarten through 12th grade. They don’t know school without it. I hope no child in our communities ever have to know school without it.”
John thinks a lot about the kids from the stories he’s shared through the years.
“My hope is that, all those years ago, we helped a child who grew up to give back to someone else to keep the circle of love going. That’s success. That’s love. That’s all I could ever ask for.”
John’s next chapter will carry on his deep appreciation of agape love and God’s will. He’ll move forward in a volunteer role as director of Ozark Mountain Legacy, a group dedicated to championing core values in our area.
“There is something about this community that draws people here. Legacy is about preserving the hospitality and love that people find here. People don’t come back here for the rides or shows. They come back for the people, the hospitality. We don’t treat people like they are important, we believe in our hearts they are important. That is a different level of hospitality, that’s love. That gives people hope.”
John hopes his next journey will be another 25-year chapter in his career.
“Don’t laugh, it could happen,” he smiles. “My dad had four family members make it past 100 years old. That’ll put me right there. As long as I’m making an impact, there’s no way I’m slowing down!”