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Leader fights local hunger pound by pound, day by day

A singular sort of serendipity seems to constantly lead veteran philanthropist Julie Murray precisely where she’s needed most.

Consider Murray’s early college years, which she spent studying journalism at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Murray took a course that required community service — something she hadn’t given any thought to — and after just a few hours volunteering with at-risk kids through Children’s Behavioral Services on Jones Boulevard, Murray had a new calling.

Murray went on to co-found the Las Vegas affiliate of the I Have a Dream Foundation, which provides tutoring, mentoring and college counseling and financing for 65 low-income kids at high risk for academic failure.

Murray’s work with I Have a Dream connected her with Harrah’s Vice President Jan Jones, who invited Murray to join the gaming giant to help develop strategic philanthropy initiatives. Murray also stayed active in I Have a Dream, lining up funding from other groups including the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation.

During a meeting with Agassi Foundation officials to discuss I Have a Dream, both sides had an epiphany: Murray’s background and skills set made her the ideal leader for the Agassi Foundation’s capital campaign to raise money for a college-prep school for at-risk kids in West Las Vegas.

Murray’s next fortuitous meeting came at a luncheon she attended on behalf of the Agassi Foundation. At her table sat Eric Hilton, a scion of the Hilton Hotels family and a passionate anti-hunger activist.

"Even with my lifetime of working with at-risk youth in Las Vegas, I never knew hunger was an issue," Murray said. "But sometimes in our lives, opportunities happen, and they feel so right."

And that’s how Murray ended up in 2007 co-founding Three Square, a local food bank and Feeding America member that’s become a national model for distribution of meals to the needy.

Question: How did your work in corporate philanthropy with Harrah’s differ from working for nonprofits such as the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation and Three Square?

Answer: It wasn’t much different, because both nonprofits and corporations that give are looking for a return on investment. What my work at Harrah’s allowed me to do was to take a gift and see that every dollar given had a high return on investment. It was a great opportunity to see the philanthropic side and see what the donor was looking at. Understanding what donors want has been invaluable to me in leading Three Square.

Question: After working at Harrah’s, you joined the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation. What was the most exciting aspect of your experience there?

Answer: Being able to see the children graduate at the elementary, middle school and high school levels. I’d been away from the foundation for a few years when I went back this past June for graduation, but when I saw kids I’d known since they were in elementary school walk across the stage in the academy’s first high school graduating class, and seeing the buildings on campus that I helped build, it gave me such a deep sense of pride and excitement to know I was part of many people coming together to make it happen. I was honored to have such a special role in it.

Question: On the surface, your charitable experiences seem to be very different sorts of efforts. What’s the common thread in all of them?

Answer: It’s the ability to drastically affect change. If we have a vision and a dream, and we have supportive people in our lives, whether they’re donors, volunteers or board members, we can affect change.

I’ve lived here all my life, and when you have so many people move here each month, you hear that it’s often hard for people to connect with Las Vegas and feel like it’s home. The two things I’m proudest of are the amount of progress we’ve made in hunger relief, and the opportunity to create an environment of equality in which, whether you’re a janitor or a company president or anywhere in between, you feel that you can come out to the food bank and connect and really feel a sense of community. We continue to double and triple the numbers of volunteers we have every year. We have more than 4,500 volunteers in a state that ranks as one of the country’s lowest in philanthropic giving. They pack backpacks of food and make meals for kids who wouldn’t otherwise have an evening meal. And even though they’re helping us, every volunteer says "thank you" to us when they leave.

Question: What moments have given you the biggest sense of accomplishment in your career?

Answer: I feel most successful when I can see one life changed. When I visit a partner school and see a third-grade child who, just a month before, was lethargic, hopeless and sad, and then I see the immense change that can come over a child when he or she consistently has access to food, that’s the most rewarding moment.

Question: Any particularly interesting stories of people you’ve helped?

Answer: I recently was at a breakfast, and a mom approached me. She had her daughter with her. The mother told me she’d been out of work and was barely starting to get part-time jobs. She’d never before been unemployed. She told me the food we provided her daughter with after school and on weekends got her through several months of really hard times. As a mom, I could relate to the responsibility we feel as parents to make sure our children have what they need, and how hopeless a parent must feel to not be able to provide for her daughter. Meeting them both and seeing how much of a difference Three Square made, and getting a hug and a thank you for the food, makes the long hours and intense work worth it.

I also love to engage the youth in fighting hunger. Every year, we have an essay contest asking high school students what we can do to end hunger. Last year’s winner wrote such a simple essay. She said if we could all do just one thing, we could knock out hunger. We’ve been using that as our mantra. If we can all give $1 or give one hour or hold one food drive, we can get ahead of hunger.

Question: How has philanthropy changed in Southern Nevada since you started your career?

Answer: The biggest difference I’ve seen is the bigger heart and passion that Las Vegans have for giving, particularly in a recession. Here at Three Square, I am continually amazed at the individual gifts coming in from the grass roots across the valley in middle of the recession. It makes me so proud of this community. I have really high expectations of the staff and the food bank, and every day, they exceed my expectations. The food bank has broken all records in the country among 205 food banks through Feeding America. We went from zero pounds of food distributed in December 2007 to 10.7 million pounds in 2008, to 17 million pounds in 2009. Never before in the 30-year history of Feeding America has any food bank achieved that kind of distribution.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.


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