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Laurel-based nonprofit Side by Side bids happy retirement to Joe Murchison | OLD TOWN

For two hours on March 13, a steady line of dozens of cars wrapped around the parking lot of First United Methodist Church on Main Street and spilled out along 5th Street. Occupants waved, honked and cheered, and a few of them cried.

It was a drive-thru send off for Joe Murchison, who retired in December after nearly a dozen years as executive director of Side by Side. The community nonprofit group works with local public schools, parents and teachers to help elementary-aged students succeed academically.

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“He deserves a good party,” said Danielle Manalansan, who took over as executive director from Murchison last year. “He’s really going to be missed. People in the community really love Side by Side.”

Murchison and his family moved to Laurel in 1990, five years after he began working for the Laurel Leader. That same year, he became editor of the newspaper, a position he held until 2007. In the year following his retirement from the Leader, Murchison wrote a book. He toyed with the idea of doing something on behalf of schools in his second career.

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Murchison teamed up with the Laurel Clergy Association, which had been working with local schools for several years, and Side by Side was born. Programming began in 2009 and the group’s initiatives were unique at the time.

“Kind of the obvious possibility is to tutor kids,” Murchison said in recalling Side by Side’s early days. Prince George’s County School board member Rosalind Johnson urged Murchison to consider a different direction.

“‘You really need to work with parents. That’s where there’s a big pay off,’” Murchison said Johnson told him. “That was wise advice and we took it.”

Still, growing a nonprofit organization and fitting the programming to the needs of families “was a bit of trial and error,” Murchison said. The group eventually found that “going deeper rather than broader” was a more effective way to help students and families.

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Side by Side’s signature initiative is its Great Start program, which works with families of students in pre-kindergarten through second grade in a series of eight free family nights over the course of a school year. The program is active in six Laurel-area public elementary schools and includes a meal, children’s activities and workshops designed to help parents help their children in reading, math and behavior.

Joe Murchison greets guests at his drive-thru retirement party on March 13. Murchison, who was also a former editor of the Laurel Leader, had a second career as executive director of the nonprofit Side by Side for nearly a dozen years.
Joe Murchison greets guests at his drive-thru retirement party on March 13. Murchison, who was also a former editor of the Laurel Leader, had a second career as executive director of the nonprofit Side by Side for nearly a dozen years. (Mary Schneidau Sullivan / HANDOUT)

Great Start has proven to be a great success. Before the pandemic, it was serving about 500 families each year, or as much as 30% of families in the grades it focuses on. Overall, Murchison estimates that Side by Side has reached about 4,000 families since its founding.

Great Start workshops were disrupted by the pandemic but the group quickly pivoted to offering the programming via Zoom. It is also offering virtual parent and student coaching. Murchison’s drive-thru retirement party was the first time many volunteers for the organization have seen each other in person for many months and it also served as a fundraiser for the group.

“The relationships that have grown out of Side by Side have just been such a joy for me,” Murchison said. “I’ve had wonderful board members to work beside. The teachers and interpreters have just been terrific to get to know. For donors, I roped in a lot of friends to support the organization.”

The biggest change Murchison has seen since 2009 is the growth of Spanish-speaking families in local public schools. Side by Side has long been committed to offering programming in Spanish, and recently those families have accounted for about 40% of families served. He also gained a new appreciation for the quality of local teachers.

“I started out wondering if there was a problem with teachers being able to educate local kids because there are a lot of kids who come from disadvantaged backgrounds,” he said. “But I learned that the teachers in our schools here in Laurel are terrific and are skilled. I came to admire them a lot.”

Murchison said he hasn’t decided yet how exactly he will spend his retirement. He turns 70 soon and thought it was time. He and his wife, Marilyn, plan to stay in Laurel. They have two grown children and one grandchild, with another on the way.

“We look forward to contributing in other ways,” he said. “I believe that schools succeed much better when the community supports them. I’m very pleased that Side by Side could be representing the Laurel community in supporting our local public schools.”

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