Harding has made the first steps toward opening the Office of Community Connection in downtown Searcy, where the university can offer public services such as tutoring, tax assistance and educational courses to the community.
On Jan. 29, Andrew Baker, assistant professor of Bible and director of the Mitchell Center, picked up the keys to 107 E. Center Ave., where the office will be located, and while the timeline is currently unclear, he said they hope to open the office to the public by mid-February or early March at the latest.
“What we saw was that we offer a lot of things for the community on our campus, but our community doesn’t come to our campus,” Baker said. “The fence we have around campus — which for us is just something that is decorative — to certain members of our community, it actually means to stay out.”
The downtown office will provide a space that people might be more likely to visit, according to Baker, and he said all manner of departments will become involved in the project. The disciplines of communication, education, business and social work as well as the Mitchell Center for Leadership and Ministry are just a few who will participate in providing services.
“What does it look like when we are just much more intentional with our engagement with the community? … That’s what we’re trying to do,”Baker said. “What does it look like to be a community of mission in the city of Searcy?”
Junior Parker Pruitt grew up in Beebe, and he has a lot of friends in Searcy, particularly those involved in foster care. He said he started to see a lot of Searcy that was hurting.
“It’s important for Harding to maintain a relationship with White County because Harding has, including students and faculty, around 7,000 people, and Searcy has about 25,000 people, and our ability to reach out into the community is insane,” Pruitt said. “If every person at Harding had four unique Searcy friends, everyone in Searcy would know someone at Harding, and you could make such a big difference in four people’s lives. And if everyone did that, it would just change our town.”
Baker said the office plans to offer GED tutoring, reading, tutoring, parenting courses, English-as-a-second-language courses and tax services.
Harding students have provided tax preparation services to fellow students and the community for 30 years, and while the service had not been offered for the past two years, students and Searcy citizens can once again receive tax assistance, according to Karen Burton, assistant professor in the College of Business Administration. Beginning Feb. 18, student volunteers will provide tax preparation services on Mondays from 4 to 7 p.m. in the Mabee Business Building until March 25.
“It’s a good way to get your tax returns done free of charge,” Burton said. “We e-file for you as well, and we are certified with the IRS to do that for you.”
Burton said they provide a niche for low- income households since they do not charge for their services, and they can also provide this service in Spanish as well as English. About 90 people annually utilize the services historically, according to Burton, but their goal is to help at least 100 people this year.
“From a Harding perspective, it follows our mission,” Burton said. “It’s what we are. We’re a community of mission.”