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A love supreme

As an educational assistant and family liaison for migrant workers in rural Oregon, Obie Murphy is one of thousands in the caring professions who are all of these things: big-hearted but tough, adventurous, curious, high-minded, breathtakingly talented, yet humble and sweet.

These words, however true, are still just words. You have to see Murphy in action to know who she is.

You have to see her walking into migrant farm camps every week, coaxing students to come to school. You have to see her arranging for a free dentist. Bringing kids books. Tracking down emergency housing.

Obie Murphy with students

In the farm camps near Sandy, Ore., everybody works. Even 8-year-olds go out to harvest fruit and vegetables, while 11-year-olds rotate babysitting duties at home or in the car. With luck, there’s an abuela, or granny, who is too frail to work in the fields but can stay home to keep an eye on the babies. In early June, it’s strawberries, raspberries, boysenberries and blackberries, which give way in turn to apples and pears, Christmas wreaths and trees.

Into this scenario walks Murphy, an active member of the Oregon School Employees Association, a former forest ranger, social worker and, before that, a 21-year-old from Boston who kept driving west.

“We’re very rural. It’s a tough picture,” she says. Many students’ families are desperately poor. “These kids need a lot of TLC.”

Only after she’s been around the camps for a while—maybe a few families know her from last season—and after the parents trust her enough to believe that school will be better, and safe, for their children, will they allow their kids to attend classes.

In her work at Sandy High School, Murphy sees teens with severe anxiety and abandonment issues. Some are emotionally disturbed. When a traumatized kid makes it to school, “you celebrate them being here,” she says. She tells them: “Way to go! Way to make it three days!”

After school, Murphy organizes cooking classes to keep kids away from gangs. She tutors them in math and science, and raises money for field trips to the symphony in nearby Portland. She even helped organize a forum to help work out immigration concerns in the community. A few years ago, she collaborated with Catholic Charities to find shelter for her families, so “now they’re able to live in housing that’s warm and safe.”

As if all that isn’t enough, Murphy gives up her stipend for the Azteca Club so that kids who can’t afford the $20 fee don’t have to pay it. A normal club at the high school draws 10-20 kids. Azteca pulls in about 100. To reinforce their cultural heritage, students print and sell T-shirts and sweatshirts with a Mayan design. They also participate in a day of community service, cleaning up litter and chopping firewood for the elderly.

As befits a forest ranger, Murphy loves skiing and hiking. She explains a shoulder injury this way: “I ski really hard and I slam really bad.”

On St. Patrick’s Day, Murphy teaches her Aztecans traditional Irish step dancing, and cooks up traditional corned beef and cabbage for their families. She’s also an accomplished fiddler.

How does Murphy know she makes a difference every day? Her students go to college. They’ve won scholarships. They bring her tamales. [Photo by Leah Nash]