PROFILE | Sonya Murphy sees broader world for Camp Aldersgate

Camp Aldersgate Executive Director Sonya Murphy and the staff are expanding the reach of the camp for kids with disabilities and complex diagnoses, planning soon to have programs statewide.

Sonya Murphy in The Commons at Camp Aldersgate on 12/21/2022 for High Profile cover (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
Sonya Murphy in The Commons at Camp Aldersgate on 12/21/2022 for High Profile cover (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Sonya Schmidt Murphy's strong foundation roots her to the little southwest Arkansas town of Magnolia, but she has branches of friends and colleagues that cover the whole state.

Those connections and her experience in retail, banking and education are a benefit to Camp Aldersgate, where she has served as executive director since 2016. She's grateful for it all.

"If I had not made every stop that I did all my career path and been given such incredible opportunities, I would not be where I am today as a person," she says. "I probably wouldn't be at Camp Aldersgate. A lot of those opportunities really sharpened my business acumen, including my mentors and people that surrounded me really pouring into me, so to speak."

Camp Aldersgate, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2022, originally started as a place for all races to worship together. It evolved over the years to a place that serves children with disabilities and complex diagnoses, not just through the summer but year-round.

Lessons learned from the adaptations that were necessary because of a pandemic have led Murphy and the Camp Aldersgate staff and board to new ways of looking at how Camp Aldersgate might serve around the state, and they are posed to launch a new strategic plan.

Camp Aldersgate's new logo shows the tree line and the lake, to show features of the physical camp, as well as a sun and moon to symbolize both day and overnight programming.

"And then we are outside our borders," Murphy explains, pointing to the name that stretches outside the logo's outline. "Our footprint is statewide and includes eight additional states this year."

The pandemic forced the organization to up its technology game.

"We didn't even have the ability to work remotely when the pandemic really hit," Murphy says.

Since then, new online registration systems allow for real-time decisions about camp schedules and logistics and reduce the burden of paperwork during the sign-up process. The staff can see at a glance information about diagnoses, which helps them determine trends and prepare for campers' specific needs. They can also easily see camper demographics, and thus determine what populations around the state might benefit most from the camp's services.

"We have an office now in Northwest Arkansas, and so how can we take from our 100 acres here and pick up our programs and take the programs to northwest, northeast, southwest, southeast, where there's a need," Murphy says. "We're exploring business models and what that looks like, so I think we are not tethered to our land. We are very proud of our campground, and we work hard to keep it pristine and also embrace the nature and the forest. But at the same time, we don't have to stay within our walls to serve."

This year, there are waiting lists for Camp Aldersgate's weekend and summer programs, Murphy says.

"Our team and our board are very committed to increasing our capacity through enhancing some older cabins on campus to make them inviting and equal to the newer cabins. We're recruiting more staff so that we can maintain our ratios of volunteers, campers and counselors," Murphy says. "We have a lot of momentum, 75 years and counting."

Murphy attributes the camp's success through the pandemic to the staff, the board, campers' families and donors.

"Sonya never takes credit for things," says Holly Marr, president of Camp Aldersgate's Board. "She's always passing that on to other people, whether it be the board or her peer group or to the people who work for her. But she embraces change, and she's smart, and she's an experienced professional, and she knew that when we shut everything down at the beginning of the pandemic that it was imperative that we figure out how to respond to that. Otherwise, we could lose our relevancy. We would just wither away. We do things differently now, and we do them better. We have emerged from the pandemic a broader, more relevant organization."

HAPPY CAMPER

Camping was an activity Murphy enjoyed growing up, on vacations with her family as well as with her church group.

Murphy's father, Ken Schmidt, was a coach at Magnolia High School. Her mother, Linda, worked in the office of the high school principal and later the district superintendent.

"Growing up with parents in the school district was really pretty magical because the teachers were all so kind, and they were a lot of personal friends, but the expectations were more, both academics and behavior," she says. "When we were growing up, my sister and I always joked that if someone asked us out they must really like us, or for sure respect us, because of what they were going to have to do. It took a lot of courage for a young man to come to our house and pick us up and visit the coach."

Murphy applied for her first job when she was in third grade. Jennifer Hubbard, owner of Jennifer's, a clothing boutique on the Magnolia Square, was just opening her store then. Hubbard hired Murphy a few years later, and Murphy kept the job throughout high school and worked on weekends even after she left for the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

"When she was 15, her mother would drop her off, and I would take her home," says Hubbard, whose late husband, Don, was the head football coach at Magnolia High School. "She's just such a friendly person. She never meets a stranger. She was just a natural at retail. She was a people person from the beginning of her life."

Murphy's sister, Dee Dee Phipps of Marion, can confirm that. There are just 14 months between them, but Phipps says she often looked to her big sister for leadership.

"I was the shy one, and she was always good with people skills and could talk to anyone. She would do all the talking when we went to sell Girls Club tickets, and then she would say, 'OK, I'm going to ring the doorbell and then you're going to sell this next one,'" Phipps says. "She would look at me like, 'Go ahead and sell that ticket,' and I would say, "Sister has something to say.'"

Phipps, who treasures the close relationship her sister has with now-grown nieces Hannah and Hope, is amazed by her sister's ability to remember not just names but personal details about the people she meets.

"She just is genuinely interested. It has amazed me where her path has taken her," Phipps says. "She has excelled at each position. She just has visions -- and she was always like that, even as a child."

Hubbard made a point, over the years, of taking the girls who worked for her across the street from the store to the courthouse to register to vote on their 18th birthdays, and Murphy was no exception.

"I encourage the girls that work for me to give back to the community, and Sonya has definitely given back," Hubbard says.

As Murphy has moved on to other jobs, she has remained a steady customer of Jennifer's. Hubbard often handpicks clothes she knows to be Murphy's taste and sends boxes of them for her to peruse, returning anything that doesn't work. The red coat Murphy wore for the photo that accompanies this story came from Jennifer's. It was wrapped and under the Christmas tree at Murphy's parents' home in North Little Rock when she told Hubbard she needed something for the photo.

"I said, 'You go get it, and they can just wrap it back up after,'" Hubbard says.

RETURNING HOME

Murphy initially wanted to be a broadcast news anchor, but her focus turned to public relations and marketing, and after graduation, she become the first marketing officer at Farmers Bank and Trust in Magnolia.

"They were building a business and building a new building," she says. "It was a wonderful opportunity to go back to our hometown as a grownup. I worked there for five years as the marketing officer and was very involved in the community and loved volunteering in nonprofits and leadership so much that I then decided I really would like to be in nonprofit leadership as a career, which is really my pathway and where I've spent most of my career."

In 1995, Murphy moved to Little Rock as the executive director of the Arkansas Council on Economic Education, now Economics Arkansas, a nonprofit organization focused on training teachers to include economics and finance in classroom curriculum.

She worked with universities, public and private schools and donors around the state for eight and a half years before becoming president of the CHI St. Vincent Foundation.

"I was actually born at St. Vincent, as well as my cousins, so that was really meaningful, and I really love the ministry," Murphy says.

Jim Cargill, who recently retired as president and chief executive officer at Arvest Bank, grew up in Lewisville, about 20 miles from Magnolia, but it was in Northwest Arkansas that he met Murphy.

Cargill was working for a bank in Rogers when Murphy came to visit his colleague, who was on the Economics Arkansas advisory board.

"We talked about the beautiful part of Arkansas, and we just became fast friends," he says. "She also knew my mom, because my mom's favorite dress shop was Jennifer's."

Cargill appreciated Murphy's sincerity.

"She is always thinking about how she can make things better, whether it was with Economics Arkansas or in my work with her -- she became one of my employees at Arvest here in Little Rock," he says. "In the banking business we have a lot of things that we have to deal with, from an accounting and regulatory standpoint, but you can teach those things. You can't really teach style and graciousness and class, and those are really important ingredients to who Sonya is and why she's so successful."

Murphy joined Arvest as business development officer in 2011, and she was vice president of private banking when she left the bank to join Camp Aldersgate in 2016.

Mike Moore, head of the Labor and Employment Practice Group at Friday Eldredge & Clark, got to know Murphy when she was chairman of Leadership Greater Little Rock Class XXV and he was curriculum chairman.

"I've worked with her a little bit since she's been in her current position, and it is just a perfect fit for her to be able to work for such a worthy cause, and her passion for helping people is way over the top," he says. "My nickname for her is Supersonic Sonya because she was always in motion."

Moore jokes that while he thinks Murphy is brilliant, he enjoys stumping her with questions she won't know.

"My favorite thing to do with Sonya is to give her a pop culture quiz, which she always fails," he says.

FALLING OFF THE STAGE

Murphy can laugh at herself, too.

"One of my most embarrassing moments is also one of my go-to fun facts and has become a microcosm of how I see life," she says, outlining a moment during an awards luncheon Economics Arkansas hosted for a crowd of about 300 people.

"I was seated at the head table on stage with several dignitaries, including Gov. Mike Huckabee. When it was my turn to approach the podium, I thought 'be graceful and efficient' by scooting the chair and rising in one movement. Well ... it was one movement all right," she says.

Her chair tipped over backward, landing her behind the stage.

"I prayed that I had not broken anything and that the floor would swallow me up," says Murphy, who opened her eyes to find Huckabee and Ray Simon, then director of the Arkansas Department of Education, peering at her and then helping her up.

She insisted she was fine to speak and hoped everyone had been focused on their dessert rather than on her snafu, but there was applause as she rose.

"Cue the likeness to an injured player being escorted off the field or court with both sides cheering well wishes," she says. "If that had not happened, my remarks and I would have been a blip on the program. Instead, I had the opportunity to brave the embarrassment and continue on course with humility and resilience."

She refers to it as a learning experience.

"It was a great life lesson that we can blunder big time, even in a very public venue, and still keep going. As one of my mentors taught me: 'It is not the bumps in the road (because they will be there), it is how we navigate around and through the bumps that counts," Murphy says.

ROTARY CLUB 99

Murphy met her husband, Mark, during her time at Economics Arkansas. Mark became a supporter of the organization and helped with starting a corporate trivia challenge fundraiser. They were married in 2008.

The couple enjoys traveling together, and Murphy has occasionally stretched her boundaries and traveled alone as well. Mark was unable to join her when she went to the Rotary International Conference in Seoul, Korea, after being elected president of Rotary Club 99 of Little Rock in 2016 -- the sixth female to serve in that role in 104 years.

"It was the trip of a lifetime, really," she says. "I have had some neat opportunities that I had never dreamed of before."

Hank Kelley, CEO of Kelley Commercial Partners, was serving on a Rotary committee when Murphy was president, and she spurred him to take on the presidency himself.

"She asked me if I would consider taking a more active leadership role, and basically, my normal response to that is that I'm pretty busy and I'm trying to balance a lot of balls in the work world that I live in," he says. "But when Sonya asked, she has such a way of connecting with people that I just said yes."

Kelley says Murphy's tributes to longtime members for their past achievements often reinvigorated their commitments.

"She spent a lot of time researching the history of what people had done, and she used that on a weekly basis to really motivate people to get more involved," he says.

Murphy finds motivation in all parts of her daily life. She maintains that leadership takes courage, which sometimes means acknowledging she doesn't feel courageous but does what she knows to be the right thing anyway.

"Then when I think about what our campers have to do to get up every morning and going to school or whatever they do -- maybe they're in pain or they know it's going to be a tough day, and they do it anyway. Why wouldn't that be an inspiration for any of us to get up, suit up, show up and make a difference?" she says. "They inspire me every day."

  photo  Sonya Murphy in an art classroom at Camp Aldersgate on 12/21/2022 for High Profile cover (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
 
 
  photo  Sonya Murphy at Camp Aldersgate's tree house on 12/21/2022 for High Profile cover (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
 
 

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