PEABODY — Heather Murray doesn’t believe she deserves an award. She hasn’t done anything remarkable in her 42 years and was shocked to learn she would be this year’s Mary Upton Ferrin Award honoree, she said.
The award, bestowed by the Peabody Area Chamber of Commerce, is in its 22nd year and recognizes local women who are community leaders, role models and champions of humanitarian efforts in the same spirit as Peabody’s famous suffragette Mary Upton Ferrin.
Someone disagrees with Murray.
Deanne Healey, CEO of the chamber, says Murray meets all the criteria. She has weathered many challenges and worked hard to improve life for her family, first as a young mother seeking help from Citizens for Adequate Housing and then tirelessly pursuing job training and further education before becoming a business owner and real estate agent.
Healey said in an announcement that Murray is a strong role model for her daughters, an active volunteer and board member at Citizens for Adequate Housing. She also provides free salon services to mothers living in shelters and helps out with Locks for Love. The Ferrin Award ceremony is tonight at City Hall.
Murray grew up in Lynn, attended Lynn English High and left home when she was 16. She lived with friends and then with her aunt in Marblehead her senior year. Two days before graduation, she learned she was pregnant. At 18, she had a high school diploma and a baby girl.
“I really wanted to be a forensic scientist, but I got pregnant, so that wasn’t going to happen,” she said. “My options obviously were limited ... but my surroundings and what I grew up around, it wasn’t really different than anyone else.”
Murray and her daughter, Kyla, lived with different friends or family members as she embarked on a career in hairdressing. She obtained degrees from three different Boston cosmetology schools and spent several years working in Boston salons while holding down bartending or waitressing jobs to pay the bills.
Early on, Murray’s grandmother watched Kyla while she was at school. At one point, mother and daughter were living in Salem in a furnished room off the garage at the home of her employer’s mother.
“I don’t even remember how I got to work, probably my grandmother,” Murray said. She didn’t have a car and didn’t live near the train.
That living arrangement didn’t last long. Murray feared losing custody of her daughter, who was 4 and attending school, so she and her grandmother visited the local welfare office to seek help. Murray recalls being frightened to the point of tears by a woman there who “interrogated her” and threatened to have her daughter taken away.
The woman finally suggested she check into the Inn Between shelter in Peabody, run by Citizens for Adequate Housing. Murray and Kyla lived at the shelter for three months in the summer of 1995.
It’s something she never told other people for fear of being stereotyped. In fact, she lied on her job application to Dellaria Salon about where she was living in 1995. While working at Dellaria, she embarked on a whole new career to become a funeral director.
“I figured that was the closest to forensics I was ever going to get,” she said.
Murray lived in an apartment in Salem when she graduated from Mount Ida College in 1998 with an associate’s degree, but she didn’t spend much time in that industry. She said there weren’t many female funeral directors, and at one job, she was relegated to tidying up and acting as a receptionist.
In 2001, she joined Coldwell Banker as a real estate agent and spent six years at the Salem office. She recently joined the Lynnfield office and sells real estate part time on the North Shore.
Murray never stopped styling hair. She had a unique opportunity in 2007 to be the hairstylist for Miss Massachusetts. She also maintained clients on the North Shore, eventually opening her own high-end salon in Gloucester in 2009, named for her daughter.
Three years ago, Murray joined the Citizens for Adequate Housing board. Despite being afraid of public speaking, she regularly meets with corporate donors and is a motivational speaker to women living at the agency’s shelters.
Today, 23-year-old Kyla is a Harvard grad and recently moved to New York to pursue a career in theater. Her sister Madison, 17, is a senior at Walnut Hill in Natick and plans to attends New York University. Murray recalled putting Kyla on the train at 5 a.m. for a three-hour commute to Natick and then driving down to pick her up.
“I’m pretty proud,” Murray said, adding she couldn’t believe it when Kyla told her she was accepted to Harvard. “I’ve had people tell me my whole life that I do too much for my children, but ... there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them, and I wanted better for them than what I had. They’ve been my motivation.”
You can reach John Castelluccio at 978-338-2527, email@example.com or via Twitter at @SNjcastelluccio.