In two years, Mary Thurman has brought dozens of programs to Hyatt Park’s Leroy Moss Community Center, and she says she’s not done. As she puts it, “I’m here for the betterment of the people.”
By AnnaMarie Koehler-Shepley
Nov. 23, 2015
In the two years Mary Thurman has directed Hyatt Park’s community center in North Columbia, she’s made it her mission to get more people involved. Focusing on children and seniors, Thurman has turned the Leroy Moss Community Center into what she calls an environment of exposure to both new activities and new ideas.
“She has a way of communicating with people and a real way of getting through to them,” said Jonnia Fanning, a volunteer who has worked with Thurman for years.
Thurman has added Girl Scouts and dance classes for younger girls, for example, and things like matinee viewings of plays and field trips to apple orchards for seniors.
From children to seniors, “they’re all my babies,” she said.
Thurman said her previous work at the local chapter of religious nonprofit HOPE worldwide, where she continues to volunteer, helped shaped her view of helping people.
She said her former supervisor always kept her thinking about whether the work they were doing was about providing lip service or actually helping people from the heart, and for her, it was always about the latter.
“To me, it’s easy to be compassionate; it’s easy to talk to people,” Thurman said. “But from nonprofit, I learned that it has to go a lot deeper.”
There’s research to support what she’s doing. According to the National Recreation and Parks Association, children with lots of free time are less likely to commit crimes, drop out of school, or use drugs or alcohol if they’re in programs like those at Hyatt Park.
And with the Baby Boomer generation aging, the National Council on Aging says seniors who participate in community centers have higher levels of health and life satisfaction.
Recently, we sat down with Thurman to talk about what she’s done at the center and what she hopes to accomplish. This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.
(Listen to the entire podcast.)
I know that you’ve done a lot work in nonprofit – 12 years you said – and I was wondering what made you make the switch from nonprofit work to government work.
I don’t consider it a switch; it’s kind of like a transition instead of a switch. In nonprofit you’re just meeting the needs of the community. … It’s still the same in a lot of ways because in order to get people in here to take advantage of your services you have to recruit, you know, very intensely, so I don’t really see it as that much difference at all.
Where do you get the motivation to work in this field?
Just being honest, the motivation comes, first of all, from just my relationship with God, in really following the heart of Jesus because he came to serve, and so that’s the premise behind everything I do. And my motivation also comes from just seeing needs met and seeing the responses from the people. …
What do you hope that community center participants are taking away from their experiences here? …
They’re definitely getting real services and they’re learning a lot, I’m sure of that, regardless of what programs we offer. … I actually get to the see that. For instance, I had a cooking matters class that was sponsored by DHEC. It was a great class because we got a chance to learn about nutrition, we had a chef that was there in the class and even one week we got a chance to go to the grocery store and read labels. … They gave us $10 and said shop and make a meal with this $10. … And so I still hear them when I’m with them, “How much sugar is that?” They’re reading labels, and so I definitely get to the see the impact and how it’s ongoing. …
You’re obviously doing a lot, and you’ve told me that you’re placing a lot of emphasis on exposing people to new things. Why do you think exposure is so important?
I think it, you know, helps people to rise above and beyond where they are now. I also think sometimes people have hidden talents or they have certain niches, and they don’t even know it unless they’re exposed. And so that’s why it’s so important to me. I’ve seen the benefits of that. …
Where do you get the inspiration for the different programs that come to the community center?
My inspiration, a lot of it, it comes from different sources. I’m here for the betterment of the people so … if I hear of things that are going on in the community and I think, “Oh my seniors will love that,” or “My kids will love that.” … Some of it comes from them actually coming to me and saying, “Ms. Mary, we would like to start this type of program,” so then I’m like, “OK.” I’m all over that. …
So what was the moment that you recognized that you were making a difference?
I can’t remember the exact moment. … To me, it’s easy to be compassionate; it’s easy to talk to people. But from nonprofit I learned it has to go a lot deeper. You have to carry people in your heart to really go beyond just being nice to them one day or whatever. You have to really be concerned about people, and I know it happened at some point when I worked for HOPE worldwide. … I wasn’t where I was now in my heart at the beginning when I first started … but at some point I got. It resonated. …
You’ll have been here two years in December. … So where do you see things going from here?
My goal for this center is basically to be a hub. … I wish it could go 24/7. I mean, we’re open from 9:30 to 9 at night pretty much. But my goal is for those hours … is just to be constantly meeting the needs of the people. You know I wish I could have nonstop classes.
Overall, I just want to see this place busy, active. And that people feel like “it’s a home away from home” or “it’s a home that I don’t have.” … I’m not quite sure how it’s going to look, but it’s going to be busy, and it’s going to be positive things going on in here. That’s my goal.