It was the late 1970s, and she was a freshman at UNLV when a class required her to assist with a political campaign. Murray chose future Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan's bid for state attorney general. She so enjoyed the experience that the next semester she volunteered at a local facility for at-risk youth -- only this time it wasn't mandated by any syllabus. Murray had found both a calling and a future profession.
For nearly three decades, Murray has tackled one social challenge after another in Southern Nevada. As president and CEO of the Three Square food bank, Murray now heads a multimillion-dollar nonprofit organization whose mission is as simple in theory as it is difficult in practice: ending hunger in Southern Nevada.
Even though Murray had plenty of experience in nonprofits, the number of hungry people in Las Vegas blindsided her five years ago. Eric Hilton, the son of hotelier Conrad Hilton, had commissioned a study that found four in 10 children in the valley struggled with hunger.
That was all Murray needed to hear. She left her job with Andre Agassi's charitable foundation to help launch Three Square. "It is such a quiet, hidden problem," she says. "When families and children are struggling with hunger, it's not something of which they're proud, and it's not something you can readily see."
One of the first entities she turned to for assistance was her alma mater. "If we were going to do something as big as trying to end hunger, we wanted to partner with an academic institution that could chart the progress, measure the data, and show what it would mean for our community if we really did significantly put a dent in hunger."
Here are just two ways in which UNLV has aided: The College of Allied Health Sciences did a "hunger-gap" ZIP-code analysis to determine which areas needed Three Square's services most. And, Molly Michelman of nutrition sciences heads a team that reviews the nutritional index of the food Three Square distributes.
Since its launch on Sept. 1, 2006, Three Square and its 265 agency partners have served up hundreds of thousands of meals to those in need, and they've done so from Tonopah in central Nevada all the way to the southern tip of the state. Many of the meals are prepared fresh in Three Square's state-of-the-art, 5,000-square-foot kitchen, where an executive chef, an assistant, and as many as 20 volunteer chefs from local restaurants work each week.
The Three Square network boasts a volunteer force of 3,000, including at least one UNLV graduate student intern each semester. Despite the economic downturn, Murray says volunteer numbers are actually rising. Her theory: Many people who are unemployed are trying to stay connected to the community, and they've found Three Square's mission is one worthy of their time.
Of course, the poor economy is having a negative impact as well. Donations are down just as the number of people in need of food is at its highest. Murray says that Three Square approved an annual $8 million budget in November 2008, but it wasn't enough, mainly because many middle-class families are accessing social services for the first time. The number being served by Three Square and its partners has increased by about 50 percent this year.
The majority of those in need are children, many of whom qualify for free and reduced-price school lunches but have little access to food at night or on weekends. That led to the "Backpacks for Children" program, which distributes 3,700 backpack bags of food every Friday at 144 schools.
Certainly, it's a challenge to coordinate such a far-reaching program, not to mention managing two large warehouses, mapping out a game plan for 13 trucks to shop for food at 140 grocery stores each week, and working with 265 partners such as the school district, Catholic Charities, the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, and the United Way. That's when Murray's business skills kicks in.
"We run [Three Square] like a business where we're accountable for every dollar spent. We work efficiencies into everything we do, such as using technology wisely. And we also have those characteristics of a well-performing nonprofit such as compassion, sense of urgency for the people we're serving, and a feeling of gratitude for our donors."
That business plan appears to be catching on. Murray has been summoned to Washington, D.C. three times to speak before congressional panels on hunger relief. Three Square is looked at as a potential national model for food bank operations.