They do things a little differently over at Eblen Charities. Kind of like a grown-up, nonprofit version of coloring outside the lines — slightly unconventional, but still within the realm of artistry.
As with any sound, respected charitable organization, there are oversights, board collaborations and guidelines. But those guidelines are where Eblen Charities begins to depart from the norm.
“At the beginning, and even today, people would call and say, ‘What do ya’ll do?’” said executive director Bill Murdock. “And we’d say, ‘Well, what do you need?’
“Instead of saying, ‘We do this’ or ‘We don’t do that,’ or ‘That doesn’t quite fit our guidelines,’ our guidelines are whatever the people who contact us might need, and figuring out how we can help,” Murdock said.
Since its beginnings with a single golf tournament in 1990, Eblen Charities’ mission has been to catch the people who fall through the cracks, to innovate and create programs that should exist but don’t, to tailor its work to the needs of people, rather than fitting those needs into a pre-established template.
At the heart of all of it is Murdock himself, a man who notoriously avoids the spotlight and credits Eblen’s successes to anyone but himself.
But the fact remains that Murdock is the locomotive that pulls the Eblen train as it helps tens of thousands each year in the fields of health care, education, emergency assistance and other community-building arenas.
“Bill wants no attention himself and practically runs from credit — he’s eager to take the blame for anything that did not go perfectly, but he will always give the credit for their many successes to others,” said Roger Aiken, a longtime friend and former chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Education.
“Every day, Bill gets up and thinks, ‘What can I do to make the life of someone who is struggling better?’” Aiken said. “How many of us do that 24/7? Not many.”
Eblen Charities today is a mighty force in Western North Carolina, with more than 80 programs covering the gamut from dental sealants for second-graders to help for the elderly with food and heating assistance to the thousands of toys it provides for underprivileged children through the St. Nicholas Project each December.
The nonprofit now has seven full-time, two part-time and three seasonal employees, and a posse of hundreds of volunteers — more than 300 for the toy project alone.
But its humble start came with the golf fundraiser in 1990, when Murdock and a group of friends approached longtime community benefactor Joe Eblen with the idea of sponsoring a benefit for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
That first tourney was followed by a second a year later. Soon after, Murdock got a call from a young father whose daughter had CF, who was struggling to find the funds for a motel and gasoline to get the child to Duke the following day for tests and treatment.
“Everywhere they went (for help), they were told they made too much money, but they still didn’t have the funds to make that trip,” Murdock said.
He called the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, where the golf tournament proceeds had been directed, to see if it could step in.
“Pretty much what they said was, ‘We’re here for research, so that one day this family won’t have to worry.’ And I said, ‘Well, what about tomorrow, when this family can’t get their daughter to the hospital?’”
Murdock called Joe Eblen, who financed the family’s trip himself. Then the two began discussing the void that existed for people who earned too much money on paper but not enough to meet any extra needs.
“We checked with as many organizations as we could think of, but we couldn’t find anyone who would help families like you or me, regardless of income,” Murdock said.
“There was such a prevalent thought at that time that there were a lot of groups, and if you need help, you can get it — and if you can’t get it, you obviously don’t need it,” he said. “But we all know that’s not true.”
Murdock and Eblen also pondered the wisdom of sending money raised through benefits to organizations outside the community, “when people in our own backyard need help.”
“When we saw that there wasn’t any (local) organization that was kind of a safety net for people, we said, ‘Why don’t we set up our own?’” Murdock said.
The two started with a yard sale that raised $400. Murdock put the money in the bank on a Monday. On Wednesday, he got a call from a man who had insurance coverage, but it did not cover a medication he desperately needed.
“I said, ‘Call the pharmacy and find out how much it is, and call me back.’ The man called back and said the medicine would cost $400.
“So we gave all the money we had in the bank to the very first guy who contacted us,” Murdock said.
More calls began coming in. Murdock and Eblen conferred again.
“We said, ‘Either we’re going to have to stop, or we need to try to do it full time,’” Murdock said. “We decided to give it a try.”
For the first six years of what was then called the Eblen Foundation, Murdock was its only employee, with Joe Eblen as his adviser.
“At the beginning, so many good people would say, ‘I’ll donate 10 or 20 bucks.’ … At around 11 a.m. I’d start making calls, and around lunchtime I’d go pick up money from people who said they’d be good for it, and then I’d give it away in the afternoon,” Murdock recalled with a smile.
Not literally, of course. The money would go into the bank, and checks would be written to pharmacies or oil companies or other vendors. But there was a certain flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants mentality, tossing out rigid rules in favor of flexibility.
“Our core belief then and now is just this — how can we help? And if we go from that, the answer’s going to be ‘yes’ to the best of our ability,” Murdock said.
Even when Eblen’s profile was raised after Buncombe County officials enlisted the nonprofit to work with crisis intervention and emergency assistance handling federal dollars, its core values and ways of raising and disbursing funds remained steady.
“People here are so generous, and hopefully it’s a reflection of not only the work we do, but how we do it,” Murdock said. “We’re still doing the very same thing we were doing that very first day. The only thing that’s changed dramatically is the number of people we’re helping.”
Eblen’s programming today is vast, and there seems to be no issue that is not addressed in a given year, often through partnerships with other local nonprofits and governmental agencies.
Among them: child and adult dental and vision care; the Graduation Initiative through Buncombe County Schools and the Food For Thought breakfast, lunch and snack program; emergency assistance of any ilk; travel assistance for medical crises — including nationwide flights through the Wings of Care program; gas vouchers for Meals on Wheels volunteers struggling with fuel costs; the Great Turkey Giveaway at Thanksgiving; the ever-growing St. Nicholas Project; and dozens of other initiatives large and small.
Buncombe County Schools Superintendent Tony Baldwin said the partnership with Eblen Charities is a national model that shows how a community-centered nonprofit can work with a school system to achieve maximum benefits for students.
“Through efforts such as the Graduation Initiative, Food for Thought and Tools for Schools, we function as one connected family,” Baldwin said.
“And I have never worked around as humble a community leader as Bill Murdock — he never fails to redirect compliments away from himself to the team of individuals that work or volunteer under his leadership,” Baldwin said. “He serves as a role model for all of us in the public service arena.”
Mandy Stone, director of the Buncombe County Department of Social Services, said Murdock has built “a solution-focused culture at Eblen that has allowed us to partner in new and innovative ways.”
“What I most value is when I approach Bill with a challenge, his response is always, ‘How can we help?’ rather than immediately jumping to barriers to moving forward — he ‘gets’ that focusing to keep working families self-sufficient by shoring them up in temporary crisis keeps also impacts the overall health and safety of our community,” Stone said.
“Eblen is a great partner, always willing to come to the table and work collaboratively to find solutions, and Bill shares our view that public-private partnerships are a win-win for the community.”
One example of “how we do things” at Eblen is the method Murdock used to leverage dollars for its dental sealant program for second-graders some 15 years ago. Other nonprofits had a similar program, each spending about $150 to seal one tooth as a preventive measure.
Eblen board member Dr. Keith Black was sitting in a meeting with Murdock when the program was being discussed and said, “Bill, this is nuts — $150 per tooth is crazy. We can do this for $50 a tooth.”
“I said, ‘Wow, that’s great,’” Murdock said, “but then I said, ‘If I could get the sealing material donated and find a place to (do the sealing), we could do it for free,’ and he said, ‘Yeah.’”
Murdock called a sealant distributor and asked if he would donate the sealant if Murdock could get a dentist to donate the service and find a donated space for the procedures. The answer was yes.
Then he called K. Ray Bailey at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and asked if he could get the dentists and sealants for free, would Bailey provide space on campus? The answer was yes.
“The first year, we took it from $150 a tooth to 18 cents a tooth. We’re trying to get it to 10 cents a tooth, because it sounds much better,” Murdock said with a grin.
Last year, 800 children had 2,000 teeth sealed, with the help of 111 volunteer dentists, hygienists and assistants, Murdock said. “What would’ve cost about $130,000 cost us about $520, and that’s because we had to replace a piece of equipment.”
Such innovative thinking is a hallmark of Eblen Charities and one of the reasons people feel good about donating money to the nonprofit.
“It’s all about looking at things differently, looking at the pieces of the puzzle,” Murdock said. “The pieces for the sealant program were there — we didn’t invent that, we just figured out a way to do it more economically.
“The pieces for the Graduation Initiative were there; it was just a matter of which shake of the box would help us put together a different type of picture.”
Over the years, Eblen has solved many puzzles, from the flight to a California hospital that saved a local child’s life to the simple bed donated by Ashley Furniture that allowed a struggling mom to regain custody of her child at Christmas.
Several years ago Murdock got a call from a local judge saying he had a woman in court whom he’d ordered to make $50-per-month payments in restitution for an infraction.
“The judge said, ‘Bill, I don’t have a choice — if she doesn’t pay this, I have to put her back in jail. If I could pay it, I would, but I (ethically) can’t, and that’s why I’m calling you,’” Murdock said.
He was out the door immediately, headed for the courthouse, money in hand.
“She would have lost her job, her children, her house, over that $50 — someone’s whole life hung in the balance over that $50,” Murdock said.
The people served by Eblen and other helping agencies are “our brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, neighbors and grandparents. It’s not a ‘them’ and ‘us’ — they’re all ‘us.’
“Eblen is based on partnerships and the kindness of the whole community,” he said. “We may be a conduit for a lot of work going on, but it’s the partnerships with so many great people and organizations, and so many great ideas from so many people, that give us the chance to be a part of it.”
Happy to help
Murdock’s wingman at Eblen Charities is Bill Waddell, for whom the nonprofit’s Client Services Center is named. Joe Eblen, who was Waddell’s teacher and coach at Hall Fletcher Junior High, asked Waddell to go check out the operation after he retired from the industrial supply business about 15 years ago.
When Waddell walked into the office, Murdock was on the phone with a family in crisis — a little girl nearing death, who could not receive home health care because the family’s driveway was impassable.
“We put that road together in two or three days, and the kid died a week later, but that started me off down at that place,” Waddell said.
“I saw the people that were coming to Eblen, and the need out in the community, and I wanted to be part of it. I said, ‘I’ve found my niche, this is what I want to do,’ and I’ve never looked back.”
Together, Murdock and Waddell have grown the organization — Waddell earning Joe Eblen’s designation as the “Town Beggar” for his persuasive fundraising speeches to local groups, although his official title is community outreach director.
“Bill and I talk a lot about how you’ll never be happy in life until you help others — take all the stuff off yourself and dive into doing it for others, and you’ll be the happiest person in the world,” Waddell said.
But Waddell says it’s Murdock who fuels Eblen Charities.
“The thing about Bill is that he has such a heart for others. … He’s smart as a whip, with degrees from everywhere, but he doesn’t like a lot of that stuff written about him,” Waddell said.
“The truth is that he’s phenomenal. … If Bill wasn’t here, I’m not sure what we’d do, because I’m not sure how many people it would take to replace him.”
Former high school principal Tommy Koontz, a Buncombe County icon himself for whom a school is named, said he saw both heart and leadership in Murdock when he was student body president at Roberson High in the 1970s.
“I know of his character and his ability to help people, and it’s amazing how much he has accomplished in trying to ease the pain and suffering of people in WNC,” Koontz said.
“His heart is so big and so full of trying to help people in need that he will not leave any stone unturned to try to help someone. … He’s just one of the finest young men I’ve ever known.”
Many years ago, Murdock happened upon a mailing address for Mother Teresa, and the two began a correspondence that continued until her death.
One of her early letters, in response to Murdock’s explanation of what Eblen was trying to do, reads as follows:
“God love you for all you are doing for the sick poor. Do not worry if you cannot help in big ways. Never think a small action for someone in need is not much. For what Jesus sees is the love you put in to what you do. He will bless your little and multiply it like he did with the loaves.”
“I thought, ‘Wow, I never really thought about it like that,’ but look how (Eblen) has grown,” Murdock said. “But it’s not us, it’s not Eblen, it’s not me, it’s not Joe — it’s everybody. We’re just one conduit.
“Somebody said to me, you’re like the group now, and I said no, by all means we’re not — we’re just one of them,” he said. “We may do a lot more in certain areas, but it doesn’t mean we’re more important or do more good.
“Helping one person who lives next door to you is just as important as the number of people we help,” Murdock said. “I’m just fortunate to have a small part in a much larger effort by a lot of wonderful people.”