An energizing village volunteer

The Baltimore Sun

When volunteer Mary Kate Murray says she is game for anything that promotes the Oakland Mills community, she means it - literally.

Last summer, Murray took village staff member Ben Hunter up on his idea of forming an adult kickball team for residents. Calling themselves the Oakland Mills Revitalizers, the team boasted players ranging from 17 to 73.

"We had a lot of fun with it," said Hunter, who replaced Calvin Ball as the first and only paid community organizer in Columbia history when Ball won election to the Howard County Council in 2006. "Mary Kate is a bundle of energy and joy."

Murray, co-chairwoman of the village's revitalization committee, said, "I like to try new ways to get residents involved in the community."

Sandy Cederbaum, village manager since 2003, called that an understatement.

"Here is a person who has the spirit and energy to engage people of all ages in the revitalization of Oakland Mills," said Cederbaum, who estimates that Murray gives 15 to 30 hours a week of her time.

"She isn't single-handedly responsible, of course," said Cederbaum. "It takes the dedication of quite a few people to bring about change in a community."

She singled out the voluntarism of Karen Gray, vice chairwoman of the village board and co-chairwoman of the revitalization committee, and Bill Woodcock, chairman of the village's board of directors. Barbara Russell, the Oakland Mills representative on the Columbia Council, is a tireless worker and longtime resident, she added.

"But Mary Kate has definitely brought us a lot of fresh ideas," Cederbaum said.

New approaches are important, Cederbaum said, as Oakland Mills prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary in June. Home to 9,000 residents, it is Columbia's second-oldest village after Wilde Lake and encompasses the communities of Stevens Forest, Talbott Springs and Thunder Hill.

"We call what happened here the perfect storm because everything came together at just the right time," the village manager said. "I took over as manager the same year that Mary Kate and her husband moved to Oakland Mills, and soon after we began partnering with several community foundations. She thinks in the abstract, and I'm more practical, so we balance each other out."

Murray, an information technology manager, has lived in neighborhoods in Columbia for 20 years. She said what she likes about this time in the life of the planned city is "the emphasis on keeping all that is wonderful and wildly successful about Columbia" and melding that with new approaches.

"It's like the older generation is sitting on a bench and the new generation comes along and says, 'Scoot over and make a spot for me to sit down,'" Murray said. "We are both needed."

A desire to galvanize the generations that make up Oakland Mills has led to the development of a 30-year village center master plan, said Murray, 41. There is also sponsorship of jazz concerts and visual art exhibits, creation of a Web site for community input on a public art project to enhance the village center plaza and regular meetings to support village center businesses, among other projects.

Then there are all the community-building activities.

Another success from Murray's trial-and-error repertoire was last summer's Free Movie Night series at The Other Barn, which will undergo renovation within a few weeks. Cederbaum acknowledged that she was skeptical people would attend.

"We rolled out a red carpet for people to walk on as they entered the building and then took their photos," said Murray, who wore a tiara.

After two months of showing films on Fridays, the regular event ended its run on a high note with 100 residents turning out, light sabers in hand, for Star Wars. Movie night will start again in June.

There is now a communitywide contest for middle and high school students to produce videos based on the library's "Choose Civility in Howard County" slogan, with winners being shown on YouTube. New for this summer is a dog parade, an event that will appeal to families and residents of all ages, she said.

But not everything the community association does is fun, Murray said.

One of Murray's favorite activities is the "Principal Tour," a series of monthly meetings that she and Hunter hold with the principals of all Oakland Mills-area schools.

"Schools are the heart of the community, and we have such talented principals here," said Murray, who has no children in the county's public school system.

Also, the Apartment Complex Coalition addresses tenants' specific concerns and ensures that they partner with homeowners, she said.

Murray created a street captain program to encourage residents to become acquainted with their neighbors. Now numbering 70, these residents talk to everyone on their street, block or cul-de-sac once a month as they hand-deliver The Oakland Mills Grist newsletter, event calendars and the like.

"We are trailblazers," said Hunter, who said he has seen some of their ideas replicated in other villages. "They're copying from us, and that's great. They can pull out the ideas that apply to them."

Cederbaum agreed wholeheartedly.

"What we are doing can serve as a pilot program for other villages" that will face similar issues, she said. "We're proud of what we're doing, and we want to share our ideas."

Said Murray: "Volunteering shouldn't be drudge work that you have to do in order to contribute to your community. It should be energizing, cool stuff. I try to stretch all of us out of our comfort zones, though I try to be gracious in my persistence."

"Mary Kate has showed us that it's OK to give things a chance to succeed or fail," Hunter said. "Life's short - why not?"


Is someone in your neighborhood worth writing about? Is there an event that everyone in Howard County should be aware of? Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg wants to know about it. E-mail Janene at, or call 410-461-4150.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad