On an unpromising corner of Ingram and Spruce Streets there is a structure that houses a bank of computers, albeit second hand instruments, but valuable for their intended purpose.
They are the tools that Mary Beard hopes will help students deficient in the art of reading pull themselves out of the morass of illiteracy. She is there to show the way.
Beard sits at a nondescript table, a serious look on her otherwise pleasant visage; She is discussing the sorry state of the reading ability of many young people.
"Reading is so fundamental," she says, a note of exasperation lacing her words. "So many kids don’t or won’t read. They arguably are well behind and facing a shaky future."
She points to the computers that adorn what formerly was the living room of a fashionable dwelling, calling them the tools for learning. "But you’ve got to be able to read to use them."
This place — she calls it an outreach center for academics — and another building a few block away — the Conway Free Clinic — stand as memorials of sort for this woman of purpose whose energy seems boundless. What stirs Beard, a registered nurse of 54 years standing, is her incredible work ethic and her ability to dream.
he has made the free clinic a roaring success and she hopes to replicate that success in the academic center.
So, where does the reserve of Mary Beard’s compassion come from? She grew up in the Pine Street area and graduated from Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. She then launched herself into the field of nursing, with stops at Compton College, Compton, California, the Los Angeles County Hospital System in California, and St. Vincent Infirmary and the Baptist Health System in Little Rock
This Conway resident, one of those people who care unselfishly for others, used part of those reserves in 2002 and launched the Pine Street Free Clinic to meet the medical needs of the disadvantaged and uninsured, and today she has undertaken a project equally as challenging, offering a tutorial program for kids deficient in basic education.
Her service to the Conway community has won approbation from many sources, including the St. Vincent Health System officials who make note of her "willingness to serve and show exceptional dedication to help those in need, especially in such difficult economic times through actions that are so inspiring and such a pure expression of living out core values of reverence, integrity, compassion and excellence."
Beard undertook the establishment of the outreach academic center, using her own money to purchase educational supplies because of her contention that many kids are facing a dismal and uncertain future lacking an ability to read, for whatever reason. It is her contention that kids in the lower grades stayed pretty much focused but when they got older they fell by the wayside, losing interest in school. "We tried to deal with that at the free clinic by offering anger management classes and working with the court system in hopes of keeping kids in school and not in jail." But when the psychiatrist on board left, the program faltered.
Now with her outreach center, she hopes to make inroads in that condition and put youngsters on a path that finds learning stimulating and rewarding.
She is dismayed by the number of young people who find other pursuits more interesting than reading. And she is not happy with parents who fail to direct or demonstrate little interest in the education of their children.
Beard’s credo is wrapped up in this statement: "We believe that every child should receive the academic and personal support needed to be successful in today’s academic environment."
In effect, Beard says her work is designed to support the Conway public school system by providing an academic after-school program that complements daily school work.
In the end, the outreach program will "help the students involved gain confidence and be motivated while developing and enhancing strong learning skills," she says,
The outreach center welcomes students Monday through Thursday from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturday by appointment only for grades 8 through 12. The school is located at the corner of Ingram and Spruce Streets.
None of this would be possible without the helping hands of special people in the community, she declares, whether they are the local doctors and nurses, pharmacists or clerical workers who share their competence without compensation, working in various sections of the clinic, or the students of local colleges and retired teachers who give willingly of their time and talent to help young people grasp the elements of learning.
Beard is not above using any stratagem in order to spur interest in schooling. She offered a "deal" or contract with kids. "I pay for swimming lessons at Hendrix College if they come to school here Tuesday and Thursday," she smiled almost impishly. Not as many kids as she hoped have taken her up.
She has no problem with patients who come to the free clinic which stands as a revelation in its efforts to give succor to those citizens with low income, no income or insurance, by freely dispensing medical care, prescription drugs, laboratory and radiology service.
And who is this benefactor, this tutelary saint? She is a Conway native and visionary who saw the need for free medical service for the most needy population and did something about it. When she opened a clinic of untried proportions in the gymnasium of the Pleasant Branch Baptist Church with Dr. William Rutledge as the medical director and herself as the nurse in attendance, her image of a free clinic became a reality.