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Family, Friends Remember 'GirlsUp' Camp Founder

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Kelly Murray in 2008, with her daughters, from left to right, Maeve, Jillian, Quinn, Meghan, and Sloane.
Murray Family
Kelly Murray in 2008, with her daughters, from left to right, Maeve, Jillian, Quinn, Meghan, and Sloane.

On June 26, 2009, the D.C. area was sweltering through a summer heat wave. But a cold front was heading east across the country. The National Weather Service issued a severe storm watch for that afternoon.

Kelly Murray was at a swim team pasta dinner, with five of her six young daughters. As it started to rain, they packed into the family minivan.

Murray's husband, John, was at work.

"She was stuck at a traffic light at the corner of Connecticut and East-West Highway, a strong wind came, blew over an oak tree, and it landed on the minivan my wife was driving," he says.

Kelly and their 7-year-old daughter, Sloane, were pinned under the tree.

"A friend called and said there's been an accident, and you really should go to the hospital."

Kelly and Sloane died before rescuers arrived. Their deaths reverberated through Kelly's large circle of friends and acquaintances. Hundreds of people attended the funeral in northwest D.C.

"She had a tremendous energy," says John Murray. "And it wasn't just an energy for things she wanted to do. It was energy for other people. You know, a lot of her friends felt like she was their very best friend. And when you have that through multitudes of people, suddenly you recognize it's something unique to that individual that can connect to that many people."

Debra Soltis was a close friend of Kelly's, and a neighbor. "I think you can take a resume approach to her — I don't think it does her any justice," says Soltis. "But the resume is incredible — psychologist, author, professor."

Kelly Murray was a professor at Loyola College in Baltimore, and had a private practice in Bethesda, while raising six daughters, ages 9 months to 12 years.

"I think it's easy to look at somebody like Kelly and use labels like 'supermom,' says Soltis. "I find them in some ways dismissive of what was really going on. That implies busy and juggling, which of course is on the surface what it was. But the purpose of helping girls find their own voice was fueled by this deeper purpose, not just busy life."

When Murray died, she was in the middle of preparing for the second summer of the girls' empowerment camp she'd started in 2008, called GirlsUp.

Her family decided they wanted the program to continue, and Soltis offered to help out. She took Murray's hand-written notes and curriculum and facilitated the camp that summer, just one week after the funeral.

Soltis is now the executive director of GirlsUp. The camp, which kicks off in early July this summer, is aimed at preteen girls, helping them build confidence, before they hit those middle school and high school years that can be so tough.

"There are a lot of disheartening studies out there that show that girls' self esteem peaks around age 9, and doesn't resurface until — at best — a decade later."

Since Murray's death, GirlsUp has gone from serving just a handful of kids, to around 100 this summer. But Soltis says it's still Kelly's program.

"I always feel particularly connected to Kelly when the program is running, because I can hear her voice in there."

John Murray, who serves as president of GirlsUp, says the program also helps him and his daughters feel closer to Kelly.

"Just this July, my 10-year-old, who was 6 at the time, will go to GirlsUp for the first time. At the time of the accident, my older daughters had already been through it once. But this will be the first year that Maeve will be able to go through it, and experience some of what her mother was thinking about how she would like her to live her life, and how she would like her to approach the issues that girls face."

[Music: "Summer" by Balmorhea from Rivers Arms]

Photos: GirlsUp

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