By: Drew Bordeaux,
B&NC Mag Arts & Culture Editor
Within moments of meeting Clare Murray, you learn that the Community Center of Northern Westchester is so much more than a food pantry. A space that appears so small from the outside actually houses a grand operation with intention behind every inch: neatly-organized packages of school supplies in the front entry, a room (the size of most small boutiques) packed with clothing resources, a well-stocked pantry with animated volunteers, and buzzing offices. Each employee who greeted us, like Murray, displayed a mix of discipline and joy, reflecting the gravity of their work and the confidence of knowing they’re making an important difference.
Similar to the center she runs, Murray’s small physical stature is a sharp juxtaposition to the size of her impact, and her humble manner belies the true scope of the massive enterprise she leads. According to Murray, “Here at the Community Center, there are seven of us, but we have an army of volunteers. At least 500 different individuals get involved each year. And without whom we couldn't operate... they are the lifeblood of the center. We serve the whole of Northern Westchester. There’s 38 different towns that we're trying to broadcast our services to so that those in need know of us, and know where to turn, but also those who want to get involved know where to and how to.
Murray grew up in England, and worked as a physical therapist there and in Canada for 22 years before moving to the United States with her husband. Shortly after the move, she was drawn to the CCNW by a newsletter she kept on her desk. One volunteer shift turned into two, which inspired her to apply for the role of Operations Manager, a role she held for 7 years before her current 5 year tenure as Executive Director. “I guess what inspired me,” Murray said, “One, was the mission. And two, was the immediate feeling of being at home. Just in those first two shifts of volunteering. It felt so extraordinarily comfortable. And three, I think it drew upon, I hoped that it would draw upon, both the organizational and human services skills that I had through my work in the medical field, as well as some of the business I had learned in terms of working in the retail and wholesale field. And it seemed like a good fit.”
With her team, Murray has a unique ability to creatively synthesize and transform the support they receive from the community into meaningful programs. For example, when they noticed an influx of boutique attire in the 200,000 lbs of clothing they received annually, they saw an opportunity to leverage the value of those pieces for the greater good. The result became a shop on Katonah Avenue, run by Ann Hardy, that generates revenue through designer pieces that is then routed back into the core mission of the organization. In Murray’s words, “We do get quite a lot of very, very high-end, hardly used clothing that we felt, if we could make money out of it, it would help us to buy food for the food pantry. So when we get that Prada jacket, and if we could sell it for $100, $100 worth of food is more important than one jacket for one person.”
Another program, an entrepreneurial sewing and design course, was launched to help those in need of income who lacked transportation or child care. With machines donated by the community, “The sewers are making their own products, and then we have a corner in the shop where they're able to sell their products, so they're directly earning an income, as they're learning and as they're honing their skills. We teach them the basics of entrepreneurship, marketing skills, as well as the real physical sewing skills.”
Rounding out the full spectrum of wraparound services provided by the CCNW, Murray spoke of the educational programs provided. “We have an array of educational programs to help [with] employment opportunities. We teach English as a Second Language, basic computer skills. We have job counselors who are volunteers to help...with the applications, to prepare for interviews, to guide you in terms of choices and availability of opportunities. And then we teach basic skills of construction, and OSHA training, OSHA certification… and we have restaurant skills. And we teach entrepreneurship, and money management, and all sorts of things to try and help people, to say, ‘Okay I'm in this spot, now is there anything I can get help from to get out of this spot.’”
Murray’s spirit of innovation and collaboration is best serviced by the emphasis she places on effective communication. Whether it is outreach to those who have visited in the past to check-in on their needs, coordinating the efforts of partner organizations, or leading fundraising initiatives, it is clearly her personal mission to ensure that no stone is left unturned in her service to the community. This unwavering discipline, however, is complemented by her deep appreciation of serendipity. Tales of wedding dresses appearing in the perfect size, or Thanksgiving turkey donations hitting the target number just in time, hold as much weight and gratitude as the carefully orchestrated efforts of her team. For Murray these moments go hand in hand with the work and goodwill of the community.
When asked how she stays motivated through times as challenging as this year, Murray shared, “There's a story about somebody walking along a beach and all the starfish have washed up out of the ocean, onto the beach, and they're all dying. And then there's a chap walking along throwing them in one by one. And someone else says, ‘Well why would you even bother? How can you make a difference? You know, there's thousands on the beach.’ And he said, ‘Well it mattered for that one. And it mattered for that one.” As he's throwing them back in. And I think by keeping focused on whatever we do, one by one, we are helping.”
*Funding and donations from our community are essential to keep this resource available for our neighbors in need. To make a donation or get involved with the Community Center of Northern Westchester, please visit: https://communitycenternw.org/