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In the numbers game, Hurley comes out a winner

New alum using sociology background to aid Kauai residents

Mary Ellen Hurley’s life story is long and complicated, but one can try to sum it up with a series of numbers.

Mary Ellen Hurley, 2013 graduate

Mary Ellen Hurley’s volunteer work at a community garden helps feed 300 families each week on the island of Kauai. (Photo by Kit Furderer | Kine by Design)

She spent 21 years in Dayton, Ore., as the neighborhood “mom” to pregnant teens and wayward kids who needed help that no one else was willing to give.

She has undergone 29 surgeries – back, jaw, abdomen, you name it – as an adult. Her back is held together by two titanium cages. Twice she narrowly escaped death by being resuscitated on an operating table.

Hurley used to drive 100 miles each day from Dayton to Corvallis and back for her Oregon State classes.

In 2011, she packed up and moved 2,600 miles to Kauai in the middle of her studies as an OSU Ecampus student.

Using her online coursework in rural environmental sociology as a guide, she volunteers at a community garden and food pantry that combine to feed 300 families every week. The locals call her “Auntie.”

And in June – two months before she turned 52 – Hurley earned her first college degree. To top it off, in August she won the Outstanding Non-Traditional Student Award from the University Professional and Continuing Education Association’s West Region, which represents more than 60 institutions.

It was an educational journey that took more than 30 years to complete, but she sees it as the beginning of perhaps the most important work of her life.

“Whenever I do anything, my whole focus is on creating a win-win situation for everybody,” she said. “So when I went back to school, I wanted a degree that would get me more than just a job. I wanted a career where I could go out and help people.”

Hurley didn’t waste any time, either. When the opportunity arose to move to Kauai, she left as soon as possible in order to immerse herself in the culture, volunteer in the community and understand the island’s needs.

What she discovered was sobering.

Kauai faces a major food insecurity crisis, and the cost of food delivered from the mainland United States is too expensive for many families to afford. Hurley’s work with the community garden at the Lihue United Church helps the island’s underserved residents create a more self-sustainable environment, providing fresh vegetables and teaching locals how to grow the foods themselves.

“Our goal is not just to give them fresh food and vegetables, but we want to teach them how to cook the food to get the best nutrient value out of it,” she said. “The people on the island are very proud and to ask for help is not an easy thing. We want them to know help is always available to them through our garden.”

Hurley is the embodiment of Oregon State’s land grant mission, having earned an education from a distance with the sole objective of using her OSU-based knowledge to positively impact Kauai’s residents.

Mary Ellen Hurley, 2013 graduate

(Photo by Kit Furderer | Kine by Design)

She said her Ecampus classes provided a wealth of information and dynamic discussions with classmates and instructors via Skype and online chats that helped her understand societal issues – and how to properly address them.

“The water on the west side of the island is being polluted by runoff from the fields, and the people in low-income situations don’t know how to fight against it,” she said. “We want to help them see how their lives are being affected by environmental degradation. With the right choices they can break the cycle of poverty.”

Hurley’s selfless work has not gone unrewarded. She was honored in a speech by OSU President Ed Ray at the commencement ceremony in June, and in July she was appointed as the director of the Lihue United Church’s community garden.

That’s what most people would call a win-win.

“I’ve had to overcome a lot to get here and it’s taken a long time,” she said. “There’s a little more soreness as I get older, but gardening and feeding the poor has given me reason to keep going.”