Donna and her family were still mourning the loss of Roger. She continued as the alumni director at Murray State, but it was very hard for her to be around young people Roger’s age.
“I would see a lot of Roger’s classmates from Calloway County High School on the campus at Murray State,” said Donna. “I knew I needed a change.”
Donna said one of the hardest things she had to do while still alumni director was to speak to the Murray State graduating class.
“I would always speak to the graduates during the rehearsal for commencement,” said Donna. “This was the year Roger would have graduated had he been at Murray State, who heavily recruited him. I was just beside myself. I remember leaving the office early and instead of walking from my office in Sparks Hall to Lovett Auditorium, where the rehearsal was to take place, I got in my car and drove around campus trying to convince myself I could give this speech. I finally pulled up to a parking space in front of Wilson Hall, took a deep breath and got out of my car. As I opened the door, there was a Monarch butterfly and this took my breath away. It flew over to some mock oranges that were close by and I walked over to where it had landed and watched it for a few minutes. I then told myself I received the message that I could do this. I walked to Lovett, and I don’t remember anything I said, but I got through it and again, knew I needed to make a change.”
Donna said a fund had been set up in Roger’s name.
“We didn’t want it to be a scholarship fund because Roger had such a big heart and always wanted to help people,” she said. “We just felt like a scholarship wasn’t enough. The fund was set up and is still administered by the Calloway County Board Office. We have paid sports fees for kids who could not afford them, we have bought athletic shoes, and one year we helped a student who was elected to a state office and couldn’t afford the travel expenses. It was a fund that was flexible to do the things that would make it possible for young people to have opportunities they might not have otherwise.”
Donna said it was quite a challenge to figure out how to administer this fund.
“I read in the newspaper that a Family Resource Center had been approved for Calloway County and I thought that might be the place to administer this fund,” Donna said. “I called Nancy Lovett at the Calloway School Board Office and asked how we could identify those who might benefit from this fund and asked who was in charge of the program. She told me they had not hired anyone yet and asked me if I would be willing to be considered.”
Donna said at first she was stunned because that was not why she had called Nancy.
“But I had been praying for a door to open and God has always been there for me, so I put together a resume, an interview was scheduled and I was hired as the director of the Family Resource Center for the Calloway County School System.”
This was in 1992 and the office was to be located at East Calloway Elementary School.
“I remember driving out to look at the office,” said Donna. “I happened to look up at the sky and there was a flock of Monarch butterflies that was migrating south. I had never seen that many Monarchs at one time. I pulled over to the side of the road and thought to myself, ‘What a message this is!’”
Donna said she was first given a small room at East with no windows, but it was soon decided that she would need a bigger space and they gave her a classroom as her office.
“It was such a great work environment,” said Donna. “I was around young children and constantly receiving hugs around my knees. It was the change I needed.”
The motto of the Family Resource Center was “Whatever It Takes,” and it didn’t take Donna long to figure out there were a lot of unmet needs. The FRC served all three elementary schools and the preschool.
“I had a lot of kids to take care of and the only way I could communicate with most parents was with a home visit,” said Donna. “It was almost overwhelming to see how many needs there were. I also discovered that people didn’t know what resources were available in Calloway County and in fact, I was learning what was available.”
Donna organized the first Community Resource Fair.
“One thing that was very apparent was that many children needed clothing and coats,” said Donna. “I set up clothing racks in my office at East and asked the children to bring in their outgrown clothes and coats. Children were giving up their recess to hang and sort clothes.”
The first Community Resource Fair was held in conjunction with USA Today’s National Make A Difference Day.
“I had a Family Resource Center Advisory Council which consisted of representatives from each of the schools,” Donna said. “It was a wonderful group and I told them we had to find a way to involve everyone in this fair to create awareness and address the needs. It was a big undertaking and it was going to take all of us to do the job.”
The council decided the key was to get people to come to the fair, and knew the students needed to be involved.
“We got in touch with the music teachers and they put together a program with students performing,” said Donna. “We also asked the kids what it would take to get their parents to come and they said free stuff and prizes. We had free things to give away and businesses who donated prizes.”
The fair was scheduled for a Saturday.
“Jim Feltner was principal at East,” said Donna. “He came to me on the Friday before the fair and told me that he appreciated all the work we had done on the fair and all the contacts we had made were very valuable. But he said he had been involved with school things for a long time and told me not to be disappointed if no one shows up. He also told me he would not be there because he had NASCAR tickets. He had thought about the conflict and felt there was no point in him giving up his tickets because there would not be anyone attending the fair.”
Donna said more than 27 organizations participated and they had the military police at the school to help with parking in a big field by the school.
“We used all of that field for parking and more,” said Donna. “John Dale was working the Glendale Church of Christ booth and when he came into the school, his first words were ‘I had to park in Egypt!’”
The Community Resource Fair was a huge success and pictures of it were featured in USA Today because it took place on its Make A Difference Day.
“We received national coverage,” said Donna.
It didn’t take them long to figure out that continuing the resource fair each year would require more space and thereafter, it was held at Murray State’s Curris Center.
“The fair served two purposes,” said Donna. “We were able to get clothing for our kids and our agencies developed a good working relationship with the families. The families learned what was available and it made them more self-sufficient. They knew where to go for help and it gave them a sense of autonomy.”
Donna said one day Keith Travis called while he was employed at Mattel.
“They had an overrun of hundreds of baby bottles and the only thing they knew to do was to take them to the landfill,” said Donna. “Keith called to ask if we could use them. I told him we could use some, but there were other resource centers across the state and they could probably use some of them also.”
Donna had been a part of Leadership Kentucky and she had met the head man at UPS in Louisville.
“I called him and told him we needed a way to distribute these bottles to the Family Resource Centers across the state free of charge and asked if he could help. He made arrangements for his drivers to pick up and distribute these bottles to centers across the state.”
One of the most interesting events that happened while Donna was at the Family Resource Center was when she received a call from Martin Tracy who was in the social work department at Southern Illinois University.
“He explained that he was working with a grant that would bring in educators from Russia,” Donna said. “Once the Soviet Union had broken up, they were acknowledging they had social issues. They were trying to establish an educational program to train people to deal with these problems. They had located a program in St. Louis, Missouri, but they also wanted to look at a more rural area also. Martin had called Frankfort and he was told to call Murray. He had no idea when he called that he knew me and when I identified myself, he asked if he could bring the delegation to Murray.”
Donna said the Russians spent most of a week in Murray.
“We took them to the schools, they met with social work faculty at Murray State, we took them around the county and they visited a lot of service organizations,” said Donna. “You could tell by their staunch body language they were not sure they believed what they were hearing or seeing. We were at the Glendale Caring and Sharing Center and there was an interpreter who was always with us. I could see one of the Russians asking the interpreter a very lengthy question and the interpreter turned to me and said. ‘We have seen people giving things to people in need. We have seen they are trying to help care for these people and not charging them money for the service. We were impressed with what we have seen and wondered if this was the influence of Christianity?’ I told them this is how we live our lives as Jesus would want us to.”
Also during Donna’s tenure with the Family Resource Center, she and the Murray Family Resource Center Director, Bill Wells, teamed up to organize the first Make A Difference Day in Murray that is still ongoing.
Donna retired from the Family Resource Center on June 30, 2003.
In 1998, Donna’s husband, Woody, lost his left lung to cancer because of Agent Orange exposure during his time in the Vietnam War.
“Woody was in good physical shape,” said Donna. “If he had not been, this illness would have been much harder on him. But he couldn’t fly anymore and that was tough for him. He had flown since he was 16.”
Woody, therefore, was unemployed for 2 1/2 years and Donna said that was devastating to him.
“He found a job in Madisonville,” said Donna. “He was working with the Kentucky Community College System in charge of construction projects for all the colleges. He traveled a lot but they finally moved his office to Paducah and then eventually his office was in Murray.”
Donna said his office was moved to their house so he could continue to work as his health worsened.
“Woody was very good at what he did,” Donna said. “His boss told him he was a born inspector. He was very particular about every detail and that goes back to his being a pilot and everything on the plane/helicopter had to be in perfect working order. Woody used to say that there are old pilots and bold pilots, but there was never any old bold pilot.”
Donna said Woody probably worked longer than he should have, and he developed COPD in his remaining lung.
“He was in and out of the hospital the last five years of his life,” Donna said. “But he just kept plugging away. He was one of those people who would just push and push and push.”
Woody also endured two rounds of very aggressive skin cancer.
“He was so proud of the medals he would receive at the Relay for Life,” said Donna.
Donna lost Woody on June 28, 2017.
“He wanted his Relay medals displayed when he died and I made sure to do that,” she said.
Donna said during those years when Woody needed a lot of care, he was very distraught that he was keeping her from doing the work of helping others and being involved in her community projects.
“He made me promise him that when he was gone, I would become active in those again and I have done that. He was always standing behind me, supporting me in whatever I was involved with.”
Editor’s note: Next week we will wrap up this series on Donna Herndon. No story about Donna would be complete until we have shared the many community events and nonprofits she has started or played a major role in their success.