Q&A with Heather Murphy, Yoncalla Early Works Site Liaison and Rural Policy Advisor
What do you hope to accomplish in your new role at the Children’s Institute?
I hope to serve as a catalyst for change for children living in North Douglas County. I want to help bring all of the necessary pieces together to build a successful and sustainable support system for families with children from birth to post-secondary education. I see so much opportunity for changing outcomes. I hope to provide some of the drive and energy necessary to make these things happen, and to create a guide for other rural communities. My husband and I both grew up in small towns and we chose to start our family in a small town. I could have lived anywhere and always understood that. For many children growing up in rural Oregon today, I don’t see that they feel that they have choices as they mature. I think that many of them feel trapped rather than making a conscious decision to live where they are. That makes it very difficult to appreciate all of the wonderful things that small towns have to offer.
I feel very fortunate to have discovered what moves me in life. I think it’s ideal when your skills and strengths match your interests and you parlay them into a career. I am passionate about working to provide all children with the happy childhood and potential that I felt growing up.
My position is multi-dimensional. I have access to a wealth of information on best practices and early childhood research, and have the time to research which of these ideas might translate in North Douglas County. I can then introduce and support the implementation of these ideas. Often projects don’t get off the ground because they don’t have someone dedicated to systems change, and then even terrific ideas can languish.
The Yoncalla Early Works initiative has many layers; bringing them online to support children and families is so exciting to me. My position is supporting something very dynamic in Elkton, Drain and Yoncalla. How beautiful that those communities can come together around young children.
Why is the expansion of its rural policy work important for CI?
There are many rural communities in Oregon and their voices are not always amplified. CI recognizes the importance of providing a template for rural communities to build birth-to-third-grade pipelines, much like the Early Works demonstration site at Earl Boyles Elementary in southeast Portland is providing a template for larger urban communities.
Yoncalla and the larger North Douglas region are so ripe for positive change. They provide the perfect petri dish for this rural work. Rural areas are hit hardest by recessions and it takes much longer for them to recover. Much like the efforts to redevelop areas in cities, rural areas need to be revitalized as well. This requires a different way of thinking, as resources are scarce and part of the beauty of living in these areas is the significant history they have and the way that citizens relate to one another.
There are still many children in Oregon living in rural communities, and although many parents would choose to stay and raise their own children where they grew up, the lack of opportunity either drives them away or can make them feel as if they are thwarting their children’s potential by not providing them with the same quality of education that larger areas can. Bigger is not necessarily better for everyone. I would like to see more pride return to rural areas. Supporting quality programming in these areas through smart policy is definitely one way to do that.
Has North Douglas County changed since you grew up there?
My high school is now close to half the size that it was when my sisters and I attended. When I was in school, the timber industry was declining rapidly, but mills were still operating and people still had jobs in town. A good percentage of my classmates went on to four-year colleges, obtained bachelor’s degrees, and became working professionals.
Perhaps the most noticeable change for me is the change in the sense of community. When I went to school there, much of the town came to high school games and events. I remember when my basketball team played our league rivals for first place, the gym was standing room only. The pride was so tangible. People really cared about our little town.
Looking at the statistics in North Douglas recently, I was dismayed at how much things have changed. There are fewer electives, fewer days of school, lower test scores, and a high percentage of kids do not think that attending a four-year college is an attainable or affordable goal.
How does early learning work look different at Yoncalla and Earl Boyles?
The size and culture are most noticeably different to me. Unlike Earl Boyles, which is in a densely populated area where 72 languages are spoken, Yoncalla is sparsely populated and slightly removed from the I-5 corridor. While surrounded by beautiful woods and ranch land, the town struggles with some modern identity issues, such as attracting new businesses.
Yoncalla has wonderful foundational buy-in and key partners at the table, but they are challenged by not having enough people to lift up the work, and the potential for burnout is high. Turnover is something that has to be considered at every step and level. If one champion leaves, who will pick up the torch?
The questions of funding sustainability is something that both districts have in common. While Earl Boyles struggles with the need to grow their facilities, Yoncalla struggles with a declining population and failing facilities with little capacity to raise the funds necessary to make repairs and/or build anew.
Your job bridges practice and policy. How do you accomplish that?
That bridging is one of the challenges that attracted me most to this position. As the director of a nonprofit for 14 years, I had to manage policy and practice on a daily basis alongside development, budgeting, personnel, and community relations, among other things. I had to make certain that Family Relief Nursery was connected to the movements happening at the local, county and state levels to ensure that we could meet the ever-growing demand for our services.
I also had to make sure that we could pay the plumbing bills (if my plunging didn’t work) and continually build a high-caliber team in the rural area that we served. I have become adept at switching hats from moment to moment and I find that challenge exciting. This work is always a matter of fitting pieces into a puzzle. Sometimes you have to be very patient and other times, you have to push hard. But when the pieces of the puzzle come together, a beautiful picture is created. And when it does, there is nothing more fulfilling.