Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Marta Hill Gray of Culpepper Garden Is Helping To Change Our World

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I believe leadership is service. I am here to serve my organization, the residents and my staff. I am willing to make tough decisions, to lead by example, and I am also willing to fail. Sometimes being willing to fail engenders not only the loyalty of your staff but brings untold successes in ways never imagined.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marta Hill Gray.

Marta Hill Gray is a marketing strategist and long-time advocate for underserved populations. Her primary focus has been on women’s health and low-income older adults. She currently serves as the Executive Director at Culpepper Garden, a housing organization in Arlington, VA that offers assisted living and independent living to low- to extremely low-income older adults.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I started this job in the early days of the pandemic. I had my own consulting company and all of my clients paused, as they were uncertain of their next steps. All conferences were canceled, and so many plans that were in place fell apart. An acquaintance that I had met at a women’s networking event reached out to me and asked if I would take a look at a job opportunity she had just been given. It was nothing I had ever considered, however I saw an opportunity with this community so I took a chance. I am, in my heart, an advocate for those who have no voice and I have always felt a strong connection to older adults. My grandparents were instrumental in my life growing up and into adulthood. I think that shaped me and somehow led me to this work. I saw an opportunity to make an impact in this role and I ran with it.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I don’t think I ever understood the enormity of issues surrounding poverty and healthcare for older adults in America. Their options are pretty limited, and without advocates and/or family, many are left adrift and in peril. We had one resident pass away not long ago and there was no one to inform, no one to claim their body and no one to mourn them. That haunts me, as I know this is not a unique situation.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Since I started during the height of the pandemic, there were some learning curves and mistakes. We have many residents who would forget their masks, not keep them pulled up over their noses and mouths, and many were afraid to come out of their apartments. It was important to deal with their fears but also keep them eating, and moving around. Life can be so lonely and isolating anyway when you are older. We had one resident who has since passed away play music in the lobby on Friday nights, and I would go out with a few staff members and dance. We had such fun! He had played in hotels and lounges in Las Vegas for many years. One Friday, I missed our dancing session, and I was summarily scolded. I had no idea it meant so much to all of them. Little things like that mean so very much to those who aren’t able to dance or engage as they once did. I have learned to pay attention to what may not seem to me to be a big deal, but in fact it means a great deal to others who live very different lives.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

We provide housing and care to individuals at the last stages of their lives who have virtually been abandoned by the system at a critical point in their lives. There are no dedicated programs in place to provide subsidized, affordable housing to older adults with limited means. Culpepper Garden was, in fact, the first facility of its nature to receive subsidies from the Department of Housing & Urban Development, which enables us to provide care for assisted living residents who would otherwise be unable to afford the care they need. We are a shining example of a place that cares for a marginalized population and what is possible when we provide the care these individuals need with dignity and respect.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

There are examples of this daily. We had a 68-year-old woman move in this past year who had been sleeping in her car for two years and did not have the resources to rent an apartment. She had fallen ill, lost her job, and subsequently lost her living situation as her income and savings dwindled. She lived in the Walmart parking lot at night because it was well lit and felt safe. She worked during the day helping a woman with dementia, but with her social security of $800 per month, she could not get very far. She now has an apartment, food to eat, and access to services and care she could not have dreamed of previously.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

The government can and should provide subsidies for assisted living care services for low-income older adults. This keeps them out of nursing homes (where they don’t need to be) and saves a tremendous amount of money, not to mention extends the quality of life for older adults who simply need levels of care that do not require skilled nursing. Currently there is no subsidy bridge between living independently and a nursing home environment for older adults. This is a disgrace and a financial disaster multiplied by three.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I believe leadership is service. I am here to serve my organization, the residents and my staff. I am willing to make tough decisions, to lead by example, and I am also willing to fail. Sometimes being willing to fail engenders not only the loyalty of your staff but brings untold successes in ways never imagined.

I am charged with fundraising for a population that is not top of mind for many people and/or companies.

I have spoken to groups of three and three hundred. It is all the same, and I often get frustrated that there is not more interest and compassion for older adults. So, I am constantly looking for creative ways to get the message out. Sometimes my ideas are awful and my staff has a good laugh but often, those ideas lead to great opportunities. The courage to fail and be wrong can be a superpower.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some very compassionate and dedicated people and find that all the lessons that I’ve collected apply to the work I’m doing now. I often turn to these morsels to give me a boost of morale whenever I hit a wall in my work advocating for low-income older adults.

  1. Never assume people care as much as you do.
  2. Don’t be afraid to get emotional about something that means a lot when it comes to your work.
  3. Loss is part of life, and there is a lot of loss with this population. It is natural.
  4. Working with kind people is essential in this line of business.
  5. This may be the hardest work you have ever done and loved. Ever.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If we make sure our older adults have care, food and shelter, and if we set a standard that values life at every stage, we’ll be golden. We tend to throw away and diminish life at the end. What does that say about us as a culture? We all get old, and we all die. No one needs to die on the street because they are without means and income. This is something that deeply troubles me about our society. It actually costs more not to have systems in place to provide housing and care than it would if we had actual structures in place to serve low-income older people.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“When in doubt, don’t.” This also follows my second favorite life lesson quote, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” I think about that one a LOT. I want to do so much, but I must be mindful of bandwidth but that can prove challenging when the need is so great and dire.

I also find that when you come across a gap in your knowledge, it’s important to be mindful and open to learning something new and growing from it. Sometimes one’s greatest strength can be admitting to not knowing enough and then turning that into an opportunity to grow and learn.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Melinda Gates. I feel quite inspired by her fortitude and dedication to helping resolve some of the intractable problems of our time. The Gates Foundation does some great work around the world, particularly to eradicate polio in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the last two remaining countries where polio is prevalent. I would love to pick her brain about gathering support for and serving populations that have been left behind.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Folks can follow me on Twitter:

I also encourage your readers to check out our work at Culpepper Garden:

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Marta Hill Gray of Culpepper Garden Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.