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Karen Murley poses in a home

Illinois State alumna Karen (Brown) Murley works nearly full-time as a volunteer decorator for The National Center for Children and Families.

Alum volunteers time, talent to create comfort in a crisis

Sometimes they stay in their bedroom because the rest of the apartment is bare. There is no comfy couch, big screen TV or soft light. Not even a collection of mismatched dishes.

These apartments belong to women escaping abusive relationships, teens aging out of foster care, the poor, the addicted.

Their stories don’t matter to Karen (Brown) Murley ’61, but their lives do.

At nearly 76, with a comfortable retirement income, grandchildren and a home in Bethesda, Maryland, Murley doesn’t have to spend her days rummaging through trash bags of donations or stopping to pick up items left at the curb. And yet she does.

The twice-retired former legal administrator and consultant for The World Bank works nearly full-time as a volunteer decorator for The National Center for Children and Families (NCCF) in Bethesda. The agency, which provides transitional housing, depends on Murley to turn a temporary house into a home. She is well aware that the future occupants need confidence and comfort as much as living essentials.

“By the time we finish, it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s a place I could see myself living.”

With as little as a day’s notice, Murley packs her SUV with donated furnishings, housewares, linens, artwork and—always—her toolbox. She turns a bare apartment into a respite in a single day, walking out the door with brownies cooling on the counter. Her work is so noted and appreciated that she was a featured volunteer on CNN’s “No Place Like Home” broadcast last year.

Murley even turned a once-condemned home into a place where anyone would want to live, said Margaret Gainer, a friend of 40 years who was recruited to help with that project. “She can do anything. What amazes me is when we’re unpacking, the place looks awful. By the time we finish, it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s a place I could see myself living.”

Annie Strong, 20, moved into her first-ever home in May. She has a job and plans to go to school. “This is what I can call home,” she said, expressing gratitude that her favorite color of turquoise was used. “It’s something to be responsible for. It’s my next step to adulthood. I didn’t even meet Karen, but she decorated it perfectly.”

Strong benefited from a passion that started in Murley after her retirement a decade ago.

She enjoyed redecorating her home and watching HGTV programs. She signed up for a weeklong interior redesign and staging class. By the end of that first day, Murley was hooked.

Karen Murley decorates

Ninety percent of the time, Murley makes the purchases having never met her clients.

“That night I called my husband and told him I was so excited. We only had a half day class, and we were out decorating a room.”

Design was a big departure for the woman who used to travel to Third World countries teaching recordkeeping in places where women made yogurt from mares’ milk. The adventure did, however, fit with her love of learning something new.

Realizing she didn’t want to start her own business at age 65, Murley was content to work with friends who sought her advice on paint colors and decorating choices. She found her calling when she met another redesign student. An NCCF volunteer, the friend asked Murley for help reviving an apartment. That was eight years ago and decades after the Illinois native completed a business education degree at Illinois State.

Murley comes from Minooka—a small town in the Northeast corner of the state that ironically has the motto, “A nice place to call home.” Growing up, her parents didn’t have a lot of money. One of the reasons she chose Illinois State was because of the affordable tuition. She lived off campus with 14 other women who kept a food budget of $25 each per week.

Soon after graduation she married her husband, Tom, whom she has known since fifth grade. They moved to Boston, where he attended graduate school. They relocated to Germany, Pennsylvania, and eventually Washington, D.C. Murley taught along the way prior to working for the Democratic National Committee at its headquarters in the Watergate office complex.

“She does phenomenal work. She makes the apartments feel like home.”

She and her coworkers were so busy working on the convention that they didn’t have time to assemble their desks, leaving drawers on the floor and a blizzard of paper. On June 17, 1972, the office was broken into, beginning the political scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency.

“The police came in after the break-in and said ‘Obviously they’ve been in here,’” Murley recalled. “We said, ‘Oh no, this is the way we keep it.’ That was our 15 seconds of fame.”

Many would disagree, believing her fame is her volunteer work. The attention is not what drives Murley, however, who can’t imagine doing anything else. She has the support of her husband, now retired from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He’s been patient with having donated items stored in their home. There are also loads from carts she fills while scouring thrift stores and seeking out sales for what she always buys new—pillows, mattress pads and shower curtain liners.

Ninety percent of the time, Murley makes the purchases having never met her clients. She works with information provided from a form she created to learn about children’s ages and favorite colors. She then heads to Dr. C’s Boutique, the agency’s donation center, which is named for NCCF Executive Director Sheryl Chapman.

Julie Oldham coordinates the nonprofit’s Future Bound Independent Living Program, which moves teens from foster care to independence. She’s watched Murley do everything from hang a Hello Kitty shower curtain to assemble a drafting table for a man who likes to draw.

“She does phenomenal work. She makes the apartments feel like home,” Oldham said. “Many of our clients have never had their own room or even their own bed. It makes them feel safer to be in a space they enjoy being in, and it’s something we wouldn’t normally be able to do without Karen.”

The fact she relies on what others have discarded makes Murley’s work even more inspiring and remarkable. If someone gave her a big budget for a decorating project, she’d have a hard time spending it. “I just think there’s a lot of good in what we already have,” she says, downplaying her talent to envision what a room needs and convert what she has to fill the space.

Murley turns a dresser missing a drawer into a nightstand. She sews curtains and throw pillows. Chairs are reupholstered, and murals and motivational sayings are painted on the walls. Sometimes she stocks the fridge with groceries.

Her first project was Betty’s House, a four-bedroom group home for immigrant women and their American-born children who are survivors of domestic violence. One was a young African with a son. Murley watched her progress as she moved into her own apartment and studied to become a nurse’s aide. “I told her I was so proud of her. These houses are safe houses for these women who are working their way up.”

Murley knows her boundaries. She knows she’s not a social worker, that she can’t offer advice. She is also well aware that some of the apartments will not be in good shape when the clients leave. None of that dissuades her from investing her heart as she lends a hand.

“I’m supposed to be doing it for the clients, but I almost feel selfish that I enjoy it so much,” Murley said. “I don’t know how anybody can retire and not do anything. I’d curl up and die. Decorating the apartments gives my life a real purpose.”

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