Maria Edwards said she knew when she was as young as 8 years old that she wanted to attend Central Baptist College in Conway.
“When I was a little girl, my church would go there for activities and different things,” she said. “I knew that’s where I wanted to go.”
When the South Side Bee Branch valedictorian got a full, four-year scholarship, that pretty much sealed the deal.
From CBC student to honor graduate in 2002, dorm mother and adjunct teacher, Edwards has kept her relationship with her alma mater going.
Now, the 33-year-old Conway resident is being honored as CBC’s 2013 Outstanding Young Alumna during homecoming, which is Feb. 15-16 on the campus.
“I found out before Christmas. They called and told me I had been chosen, and would I accept? I said, ‘Well, what do I have to do?’” Edwards said, laughing.
Edwards, executive director of Life Choices, was sitting in her second-floor office in downtown Conway.
“I’ve always known I wanted to help people,” she said. “As a little girl, I wanted to be a teacher.”
While she was attending CBC, “the Lord just moved on me, and I felt like I was supposed to go in the direction of counseling,” she said.
She received a Bachelor of Science degree with an emphasis in Christian Counseling from CBC, and her first job after graduation was at Counseling Associates in Conway.
“I learned a lot there, saw a lot,” she said.
After 15 months there, she decided to go to Dallas Theological Seminary.
“For a little farm girl from Bee Branch, it was fabulous,” she said. “I lived in downtown Dallas with a view of the skyline. It was a very cool experience.
“I remember as a little girl wanting to live in the big city.”
She received a master’s degree in Christian education with an emphasis in women’s ministry.
She applied for jobs all over the world, including Hong Kong.
“I literally was willing to go anywhere the Lord wanted to send me,” she said.
Edwards also applied for jobs in Arkansas, and a friend called and told her about the opening for an executive director at Life Choices. Edwards already had applied, and after a few months of the hiring process, she got the job. She started Aug. 15, 2005.
The program offers free pregnancy tests, limited ultrasounds, materials and a parenting program.
“Girls get educated as well, which I think is great,” she said.
Women who enroll in the program can earn a brand new crib or car seat and get free diapers each month.
“It is a fabulous program,” she said.
A mother can stay involved until her baby is one year old, Edwards said.
“What I love about life choices is that we have the opportunity to love on these girls and show them somebody cares about them as a person, about their family,” Edwards said.
The program is funded completely by donations, she said.
“Through that, we’re able to share the Gospel unhindered,” she said, “and God is gracious.”
She said 1,063 client visits were made in 2007, and 2,502 in 2012.
Edwards is the only full-time staff member, and there are five other women who work part time, “plus our volunteers,” she said.
The Outstanding Young Alumnus, according to the college website, is someone who “has been instrumental in the advancement of their chosen profession primarily within the past two years. This individual demonstrates the love of service within their community and continues to show interest in Central Baptist College.”
CBC helped her become who she is today, Edwards said.
“For one, I built some amazing friendships,” she said. “My core girlfriends that I hung out with are still my core girlfriends, even though one is in Alaska and one is in Texas.”
While at CBC, Edwards was student women’s organization president and was on the homecoming court.
She said CBC is where she learned not just counseling skills, but “foundational skills,” such as how to talk to people, really listen and about different personalities.
“I learned that it matters more about your heart and being faithful than it does money and numbers,” she said.
Some of the professors who inspired her include Joel Slayton, Dusty Bender and Jesse Thomas.
Edwards said Slayton kept up with her even when she attended seminary.
“I remember him sending me a letter encouraging me,” she said.
“My relationship didn’t end when I graduated,” she said.
Slayton also asked her to teach as an adjunct in the Bible department, which she did “and loved it,” she said.
In 2010, Edwards became a dorm mom for Bruce Hall, the same girls dormitory where she’d lived for four years.
“Just the atmosphere of Bruce Hall is so much fun,” she said.
It was fun, but she had a full-time job, too.
“It was just impossible for me to do everything, and I had to cut back.”
She said getting the chance to have a positive influence on the students, just as her professors did with her, was gratifying.
Slayton spoke highly of his former student.
“Maria is a great example of a young Christian woman who came to college with specific goals and left with a sense of a life’s calling,” Slayton said. “Before she graduated, she told me that her calling was into women’s ministry. She prepared for that work and devoted herself to that challenge. That’s been her passion since she was a college student. Now she is blessing many women by fulfilling her calling each day.”
Edwards said CBC has grown and improved just in the few years since she graduated.
“I’m so excited. They’ve added programs and degrees, and students and buildings,” she said. “So many things have changed, but the heart remains the same, and that’s what makes CBC CBC.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or email@example.com.