Tuesday, June 2, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Julie Murray has in two years helped launch a centralized food bank for the Las Vegas Valley, taken it from her living room into a large warehouse and, in the middle of the fiercest recession in a generation, raised nearly $18 million to expand the food bank. She’s testified before congressional committees on hunger problems and what the collapse of the housing market has meant for families.
Murray says the words that guide her are patience, persistence and passion. Those words were written above the curtains in her grandparents’ home, where she saw them every day in the summer.
At the time the words lacked significance for her.
“I was a teenager,” Murray says. “I thought, ‘What is that about?’ ”
But they found context in the 1990s, after Murray co-founded the Las Vegas chapter of the I Have a Dream Foundation, which tries to guide poor children through elementary school and into college. One day, at the end of a field trip with the foundation’s children, a child’s note was passed on to her. Another staffer brought her a note a child had handed her asking her to pass it along to Murray.
In big, messy letters, it read, “You’re the only one who loves me, will you adopt me?”
Adoption has a different meaning in the foundation. The little boy wasn’t asking for a home, but for a mentor.
“You know you’re touching a life but ...” Murray falls silent.
“Even a little bit can mean a lot for a kid.”
The child is now a young man in college. Overall, Murray has adopted 55 children through the foundation.
Now, in a way, she’s adopted about 210,000 people — half of them children. That’s how many people are going hungry in Las Vegas, according to a study conducted for the food bank. At least, those were the numbers in 2006, when the unemployment rate was about 4 percent.
That study was conducted at the request of Eric Hilton, an heir to the Hilton hotel fortune, who was appalled that anyone could be going hungry in his adopted home. He pushed for a new food bank, Three Square, and hired Murray. She came to Three Square from the Andre Agassi Foundation, where she ran the national fundraising campaign. As CEO of Three Square, Murray’s job is similar to that of a university president: She spends half her time attending meetings and managing the charity’s staff and the other half raising money.
The food bank centralizes the valley’s food donations, which are distributed by smaller, street-level charities. Three Square also creates initiatives, like backpack meals for children to take home from school on the weekends. And, with Three Square’s new building opening, the food bank plans to serve 6,000 meals a day, five days a week, to hungry children who are out of school for the summer.
The irrepressibly optimistic Murray not only imagines a day when no one in Las Vegas goes hungry, she thinks it’s possible to build a culture of volunteering in a famously standoffish and unneighborly city.
“People talk about Las Vegas around the country in a lot of different ways, but what I’ve seen is a lot of heart,” Murray says.