As a mother of two young children, Rachel Parker Harding knows the value of stealing a few moments for some peace and quiet.
She shows up a little early for a scheduled get-together at a local coffee shop, having possibly "overestimated" the time she needed and leaving her husband Buddy Harding in charge of their 5-year-old and 18-month-old sons.
"What did I do today? I’ve been so busy," Harding says, describing not so much the day’s schedule as more her routine state of mind.
Yet even during her stolen free time, Harding is already thinking ahead to the night’s kid-oriented function and festivities. It’s a hectic life, but for young mothers like Harding, it’s normal.
As a volunteer and fundraiser chair at Women and Children First (WCF), Harding seeks to construct that same bubble of normalcy around the mothers and children seeking shelter and support as they escape the cycle of domestic abuse and violence.
"You want them to have the right example and be raised in a safe place," says Harding, who began as a "Peacekeeper" with the organization nine years ago and is co-chair of this year's WCF Woman of the Year event.
The behind-the-scenes work of Harding and other volunteers at such events is the lifeblood of support for WCF, says community outreach and marketing associate Megan McBroome.
"We cannot do any sort of fundraiser, event or gala without our volunteer community," McBroome says. "We have the opportunity to work with some people who are 100 percent backing our mission and they are solely seeking out sponsorships and seeking out donations, and without them we wouldn’t be able to make our mission possible."
For 40 years, WCF has worked to free women and their children from abusive relationships and domestic violence. In its mission to empower women, WCF provides crisis intervention, safe shelter, social and legal advocacy and support services.
On her first shelter visit, Harding felt an overwhelming sense of just wanting the best for the people there, which led her to get more involved.
From medical help to education to childcare for women seeking work or taking classes, WCF provides the means and services needed to help women become self-sufficient and build an independent life.
"That’s the reason I like it. They really do set them up for success," Harding says.
Deserving the Best
As a parent of two young boys, Harding says she gets a lot of use out of her psychology degree these days. Any other free time she has is spent at Parker Automotive Group, the family business on her parents’ side, where she is jokingly known as “Team Spirit Leader” helping with social media, the employee newsletter and planning events.
Harding’s older sister prompted her to look into WCF almost 10 years ago. Harding, who has worked with Easterseals and the Make-A-Wish Foundation among other organizations, recalls being surprised to learn the shelter is unique to Arkansas in that it keeps boys and their mothers together.
"I was shocked. I called my sister. I was like, 'How did I miss this?'" Harding says.
After onboarding and familiarization, Harding joined the Peacekeeper ranks. Her first event was chairing the Vegas on the Rocks fundraiser, one of three events for which the Peacekeepers are responsible.
The Peacekeepers, established in 2007, is a group of volunteers who help with fundraisers, service projects and special events. According to the WCF website, the Peacekeepers have raised more than $500,000 and have provided invaluable volunteer hours. Peacekeepers are often young professionals who donate whatever time they can spare to do whatever is needed, from cleaning to organizing activities at the shelter’s “Gentle Jungle.”
"You do what you can do. In life phases, sometimes when you have kids, you can’t do as much,” Harding says. "But I'm still able to go down and volunteer time."
Saturday, Feb. 16, 7 p.m.
Little Rock Marriott
Now that she has two young sons herself, Harding is moved more than anything by the relative normalcy of the kids — “sweet babies who deserve the best” — enjoying activities and parties at the Gentle Jungle. Whatever horrible experiences brought them together, they still want to play and snack and roughhouse.
"Happy and silly. … Just kids being kids," says Harding, who in essence is trying to help protect nothing less than childhood itself.
While the resident mothers at WCF are escaping abusive situations involving men, Harding says the shelter does have male volunteers and staff and agrees it’s important that the boys experience examples of positive, adult male behavior.
"We try to incorporate some of our [male] Peacekeepers ... so they do have interactions with good guys,” she says.
Why It Matters
Along with their three yearly fundraisers, the Peacekeepers host shelter parties for holidays and other occasions, but they aren’t involved in the Woman of the Year event, which McBroome says is responsible for anywhere from a third to a half of the shelter’s annual budget.
Harding co-chairs Woman of the Year with Natalie Rockefeller, a former Easterseals colleague who approached her about working on the event.
Time may be precious these days, but the fundraiser’s importance to the shelter’s mission is not lost on Harding, so she was pleased to report that by the weekend before Christmas the Woman of the Year event had sold out.
"It’s so amazing the support that we have this year," she says.
Harding also says that among the many local organizations, WCF has one of the lowest ratios of money spent on events to money taken in. McBroome confirms that roughly an eighth of the money received goes into events.
"I would think so because our goal, obviously, is to keep expenses very, very, very low," McBroome says. "That way our incoming revenue isn’t affected by that."
"I want to be a good steward of the money. … You want it to go to the actual shelter," Harding says.
That means budgets are firm and sponsors are important.
"Every time we get a sponsor we’re literally cheering," Harding says. "And for us to be sold out so far in advance of the event is really exciting."
A budget, however, doesn’t necessarily mean things can’t be first class. With a little help from friends, this year’s event has shaped up nicely, Harding says.
The shelter leans on a large group of supporters who donate food, drinks and, in this case, entertainment. Keyboardist Chuck Leavell, who has played with notables like The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and The Allman Brothers Band, will provide the musical entertainment free of charge, thanks to his friendship with gala honoree, philanthropist and WCF supporter Susan Hickingbotham.
Harding says she’d most like to see money spent on the shelter itself in the form of facilities improvements and expansion, and hopes proceeds from Woman of the Year, and all other events, will help with those needs.
While impressed with the resiliency of the kids, Harding reserves her strongest praise for the women residents of WCF.
"To make such a hard decision, to do what is best for themselves and their children, it’s hard to do," she says.
The most important thing, according to Harding, is a safe and secure place for women who have the courage to take a major step toward freeing themselves and their children from a cycle of abuse.
"Talk about mama bears."