Voorhees University is working to improve rural communities with the continued development of its Becoming Beloved Community Initiative.

“We started this initiative really about a year ago now. We purchased the old elementary school in Denmark. So that is eventually where it will be housed,” initiative Executive Director Dwayne Smiling told Bamberg County Council earlier this month.

“We have done some good work at the elementary school. We hired a company to first just sort of clean the building out, as you can imagine how it looked after all those years,” he said.

Smiling said the university is now working with architects to come up with a building design. It will receive input from the community and university administration.

The initiative has three components: A Women’s Empowerment Center Institute, a Social and Environmental Justice Institute and a Rural Community Development Institute.

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Smiling said the Women’s Empowerment Center has not been started yet.

“Some of it is based on funding, but that institute will be a part of it because we realize that when you talk about issues dealing with women’s issues, it deserves a separate category, not lumped into one. So that’s what we have decided to do. … We’re very excited about that going forward,” he said.

Smiling said the university is in the process of hiring an executive director for its Social and Environmental Justice Institute.

“Both on the social part and the environmental part, we believe that with what’s going on in our community and in our society, that there’s a need in our rural community to really focus in on it. So you’ll hear more about it … and we’re really excited about that,” he said.

Smiling continued, “With all of these institutes … our footprint, of course, is Bamberg, but it is also Allendale, it is also Barnwell because we believe it kind of spreads that far if we could have the impact from that standpoint.”

“We are constantly trying to find funding for all of this. The funding cycle never stops. If you get one grant, you need to get another one. But we do have the support, certainly, of the president and the administration, and certainly we want to make sure that we continue to have great relationships with county council, with the City of Denmark, those kinds of things,” he said.

Smiling noted the university welcomes a visit and input from Bamberg County Council.

Cathy Scarborough, founding director of the university’s Rural Community Development Institute, said a community needs assessment is being planned.

“I think it’s incorrect when you’re coming into a community to say, ‘You need this, you want this.’ You have to take a step back, see what’s out here, ask the community, ‘What are your needs? What are your wants?’” she said.

Scarborough continued, “We’re taking a multifaceted approach. So community development and what they want (and) education. We’ve got a $25 million grant from the Department of Education for GEAR UP. So we’ve instituted our first summer program this year.”

The Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) initiative, a federal grant program, is focused on increasing the college and career readiness of low-income students in communities nationwide.

“We have about 900 students from eight districts in the Bamberg County area, and we’re trying to expand that. At the end of the month, we will participate in the GEAR UP national week, and we’ll have students come to campus so they can get a sense of what college life is like,” Scarborough said.

Scarborough said university officials plan to meet with local officials to receive input on building design and services.

“We are going to incorporate the community’s voice in all aspects of what we’re doing. … What are some of the projects we’re talking about providing once we get our building created and done? Providing space for families and the community for people to come in after 5 on weekends to use our broadband services. So it’s a process,” she said.

Contact the writer: dgleaton@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5534. Follow “Good News with Gleaton” on Twitter at @DionneTandD

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