Making A Difference
ARTICLE BY KAY STOTHART RECTOR and PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRAD ARENDER
For Cindy Murray, the phrase “making a difference” is not just empty rhetoric. It is what she does every day. As the Chief Executive Officer of The Center for Children and Families, Murray heads up an organization that serves hundreds of children and families in need in communities throughout Louisiana. Under Murray’s leadership, what began in a tiny back room office has grown into a thriving, nationally recognized non-profit agency that stands as a beacon of hope for those in crisis situations.
Murray grew up in the small community of Dodson, Louisiana. She went to college in nearby Monroe, where she majored in Journalism at Northeast Louisiana University, now ULM. While she was in school, she worked as a reporter for the News Star, but she soon realized that journalism was not her calling. “They sent me to cover a house fire,” Murray recalls of her first job as a journalist, “but I was much more interested in comforting the people who had lost their home than in reporting the story. Instead of worrying about my deadline, all I could think about was that family, sitting there on the curb huddled under a quilt, and what was going to happen to them.” It was, she says, a moment of clarity for her. She knew then what she was meant to do. Not long after that experience, Murray went back to school, eventually earning a Master’s degree in Professional Counseling.
She was just out of graduate school when a crisis arose in her own family. Her father became seriously ill and was hospitalized for several months. During that time, Murray had to step in and take over her father’s company. She had been minimally involved in his business operations before, helping out with bookkeeping from time to time, and he had taught her certain aspects of the business, but she was unprepared for doing it all on her own. “But there I was,” Murray recalls, “running my dad’s timber business from a hotel room in Shreveport.” She says she kept things going long enough for him to get out of the hospital and back on his feet.
As a child, Murray believed that she could do anything. It is a belief instilled in her by her parents and confirmed by her Christian faith as she grew into adulthood. Anyone who has ever worked with Murray would certainly agree with that assessment.
Her first position as a professional counselor proved to be much more of a challenge than originally planned. Not long after Murray was hired by the Family Tree Counseling Service in Lafayette, her supervisor was terminated. With virtually no experience, Murray was left to keep that agency afloat during a time of multiple changes and turnover. “It was definitely good experience,” Murray says, “in that I learned a whole lot during those two years.”
During college, Murray was very involved with the Christian Student Center at NLU, and at one point considered ministry as a full time vocation. It was through the Christian Student Center that she met Charlie Murray, who became her best friend. While she was working in Lafayette and he was working in North Dakota, she and Charlie stayed in touch. By chance, their extended vacations happened to coincide, and they were able to spend time together again in Louisiana. They realized then that they were meant to share more than friendship. It was not long before they were married.
As a young couple, the Murrays lived first in North Dakota and then in Texas as Charlie continued working with churches in ministry. She assisted him in his ministry and also worked in private practice as a marriage and family therapist. They ultimately ended up back home in North Louisiana, when Charlie was hired as the campus minister at Whites Ferry Road Church of Christ. Because it would take time to complete the transfer of her therapy license to Louisiana, Cindy looked for another work outlet, which she found in Elaine’s Plants and Flowers. The couple bought the business in West Monroe and Cindy headed up that operation, something they both really enjoyed.
Murray recalls being at the flower shop one morning when tragedy struck. She received a call from a church member who had been with her husband at Camp Ch-Yo-Ca, where he was serving as camp director as part of his work with WFRCOC. Cindy had called the camp earlier to talk to him and was told that he was still asleep. Her worst fears were confirmed when she reached Glenwood Medical Center. Her young husband had died in his sleep. At only thirty-one years old, Cindy Murray was a widow. “It was horrible,” Murray remembers of that extremely difficult time in her life. “But somehow, by the grace of God, I got through it.”
Following her husband’s death, Murray sold the flower shop and went to work as the Director of Rural Services for the YWCA, an agency that would later become the Wellspring. Murray says that was a pivotal year for her. “This was perfect. I was not really in any shape yet to do one-on-one counseling,” she recalls. “It was good for me to get back into the workforce and to be involved with a non-profit. It was something I loved to do.” She discovered that she really enjoyed and excelled at administering community service programs.
Around this same time, as young attorneys and members of the Junior League of Monroe, Wendy Giovingo and Stacy Guice were working to develop a program to benefit neglected and abused children involved in court proceedings in Ouachita Parish. Under their direction, the League partnered with local judges and other community volunteers to implement a nationwide program known as CASA–Court Appointed Special Advocates—in this area. Trained CASA workers act as advocates for children caught up in the court system, providing important information to the judge making decisions about what is in a child’s best interest.
Giovingo and fellow Junior League members interviewed and hired Murray as the first Executive Director of the newly formed CASA program. “It was just me and one half-time assistant working in a tiny room at the Junior League house,” Murray says, looking back. From these humble beginnings, The Center for Children and Families was born.
“That first year,” Murray says, “things moved really fast. We started writing grants and were able to expand to cover several parishes. We eventually became CASA of Northeast Louisiana.” Murray says that she hired a whole staff at one time, bringing thirteen people on board. “It was a very exciting time,” recalls Murray. With Murray at the helm, the organization ran smoothly for a number of years. The CASA program won awards and was recognized as one of the outstanding CASA programs in the nation.
In 2004, the agency faced compounding budget cuts and funding shortfalls. Instead of giving up, shutting down or figuring out ways to downsize, Murray suggested to the board that they take a daring approach. She asked them to let her expand. Murray laughs when she recalls what a bold move this was at the time. “Amazingly, my board went along with it.” The organization changed its name from CASA of Northeast Louisiana to The Center for Children and Families, and expanded its mission and focus to include other areas of service.
Murray and Curtis Eberts, the agency’s Chief Operating Officer, drew up and submitted a winning grant proposal that allowed CFCF to begin offering therapeutic services to families in crisis. The Therapeutic Services division currently offers counseling services to teens, parents and families, as well as group counseling, life skills training and family advocacy.
In addition to the CASA Program and Therapeutic Services, the Center also now encompasses a Children’s Advocacy Center. Having a Children’s Advocacy Center, which she describes as a “one-stop shop for kids who have been sexually abused,” had always been on Murray’s wish list. In 2004, that wish became a reality. Based on multi-disciplinary teams that work together in one place, the CAC provides a means for conducting forensic interviews with children who have been sexually abused, so that they do not have to tell their story over and over again. “Every service that an abused child needs is housed in this one area,” Murray explains. Dr. Mead O’Boyle, a pediatrician specializing in child sexual trauma, is housed at the CAC, which has expanded and is moving into a new space in November 2016.
In 2015, the CFCF opened offices in Lafayette and Shreveport. In addition to the facility on Riverside Drive in downtown Monroe, the Center also has branches in Farmerville, Rayville, Columbia and Tallulah. Murray estimates that the Center currently serves between 1,250 and 1,500 active clients throughout Louisiana.
As CEO of the organization, Murray now oversees a staff of more than 200 employees. Murray believes that one of the most important aspects of her job is to make The Center for Children and Families a great place to work. “I realized a long time ago that I care about what we’re doing, and it’s important to me that it has meaning, but I get up and go to work every day because of the people that work for me,” Murray says. “I really believe that my mission is to pour in to the people that work for me.”
“The work that our staff does is hard,” Murray says, noting that center employees deal with some of the toughest, most unpleasant parts of society—child abuse, poverty, violence and lack of education. “I want our offices to be a sanctuary, where people can kind of take a deep breath and feel like they are safe here in the office.” She says there is a real spirit of play at the Center and it is not at all uncommon to see employees playing ping pong or some other game in the office. “When you do this kind of work,” she says, “you need an outlet in order to keep your sanity and sense of humor about you.”
Years ago, Murray started something for Center employees that she calls “Huddle.” “It’s something we do once a week, where we work on improving who we are as people. It’s not necessarily about work, but it is always about growing as a person,” explains Murray. “We shut everything down for an hour once a week and do some kind of learning component together. The idea is for the employee to become a better person and to build them up.” Murray recognizes that individuals spend a huge part of their lives at work, and she wants her employees to feel that their work is uplifting, not something that drags them down. “I want all of my employees to leave work each day better than they came—a better mother, a better wife or husband or community member or church member.”
Of CFCF employees, Murray says that they are not only well trained and qualified, but are truly dedicated to the children and families they serve. As an example of the caring spirit among her staff, Murray points to the Center’s annual Christmas Project. “The Christmas Project began in 2005, when many of our employees struggled with the thought that while they would be able to provide Christmas gifts for their own families, many of the children they worked with would have nothing for Christmas.” The children served by CFCF are typically abused or neglected and are either in foster care or in families that are struggling financially. To make sure these children do not go without, Center employees have each child fill out a wish list with his or her clothing sizes as well as a few gifts they would like to have for Christmas. Through community donations, the Christmas Project provides gifts to nearly 1,000 children each year. “Providing gifts for that many children each year isn’t something we could do on our own,” Murray says. “We have our dedicated sponsors to thank for continually supporting The Christmas Project and making Christmas wishes come true for children of all ages across Northeast Louisiana.”
Murray is well known for benevolence in her personal life, always helping anyone who might be in need. Because of an encounter with someone who came to her for help, she received the greatest gift and joy of her life. Murray and her husband had always planned to have children, and after his death that longing did not go away. Murray says she had been thinking and praying about adoption and had even had a dream about a little boy with dark curly hair. Within a few days of that dream, a young woman in need of financial assistance came to see Murray. Murray helped her pay her utility bill, and as they talked, she related to Murray that she had a four year old child and also a baby that was just a few months old. She was struggling and knew that she could not take care of the baby, and had decided to give the baby up for adoption. Murray told the girl about her prayers and desire to adopt. Three days later, Murray held in her arms a beautiful baby with dark curly hair that is now her adopted son. His four year old sibling was later adopted by a couple at Murray’s church.
Murray’s friends and co-workers have celebrated with her and watched as she has embraced single motherhood with the same grace and determination that make her a successful executive. “Cindy’s approach to life is inspiring. She seeks to lift up those around her to their fullest potential by nurturing their strengths, setting an example for them, providing guidance to them and always being willing to learn from those around her,” says CFCF Board President Wendy Giovingo. “While making hard business decisions, Cindy keeps in mind the impact those decisions will have on the community, the families that CFCF serves and her employees. Cindy is an incredible person, and CFCF is blessed to have her at the wheel.”
Murray strives to insure that everyone she comes in contact with is encouraged and uplifted, able to believe in themselves and have hope for the future. In her personal life and in her career, Murray makes a positive difference each day, making life better for those who live and work in her community.