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'The captain you want at the helm of the ship'

Published February 26, 2007


NEW PORT RICHEY - George Magrill wanted to help people. The problem was, who would let him?

First there were the hardened alcoholics at the Salvation Army in downtown Tampa. Only they didn't want any help.

So he tried to help kids. Magrill, then 26, was one of two finalists to head up a fledgling Pasco nonprofit called FOCUS that did just that.

He was the runnerup.

"It was disappointing," he said. "But I moved on."

Six weeks later, he got a call: the new executive director quit.

Did Magrill still want the job?

"I thought about it a little bit," he said. "I've always tried not to allow my ego to get in the way of progress. So here I am, 30 years later."

* * *

In fact, it was 30 years ago this month that Magrill first took over FOCUS.

Back then it had three staffers, a $45,000 budget, a storefront office on New Port Richey's Main Street and a handful of programs.

Now known as Youth and Family Alternatives Inc., it has 270 employees, a budget of $37-million and runs scores of programs across eight counties that serve 12,000 to 15,000 kids a year.

One man alone didn't make it happen. It took time, sweat and money. It took a community. But to bring all that together, it took George Magrill.

The president and chief executive of YFA has spent three decades as a guiding, organizing, consensus-building force.

"He's been essential in meeting the social service needs of the families of Pasco County," said Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper.

State Sen. Mike Fasano said he can't imagine what the county would be like without Magrill.

"Because of where Pasco was 30 years ago," Fasano said, "and where we are today, and how successful we've become."

Said Pasco County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand: "He's the captain you want at the helm of the ship."

* * *

YFA changed its name soon after Magrill came on board in 1977, he said, because he wanted it to reflect a broader mission.

Its spectrum of programs now range from substance abuse and mental health counseling to child care, adoption services and runaway shelters.

But it wasn't always that way.

Where, Magrill wondered back then, were the other nonprofits in Pasco County?

"I realized the needs here in the county, and our inability to address a lot of the needs," he said.

So he helped assemble the people and money to meet those needs. And then the needs in Hernando, Citrus, Sumter, Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties. YFA is now branching into Hillsborough.

But he didn't just grow YFA. He helped groom other organizations, too. Like the original Girls Club, then Boys Club, of Pasco. Or in 1979, when he helped community leaders land a $40,000, two-year grant to fund a new agency.

It's now called the United Way of Pasco County.

* * *

Early in Magrill's career, he came to another realization: nonprofits could not tackle Florida's social problems alone.

Government had to do its part.

"It's one thing for me to go to the Legislature alone on behalf of my program," Magrill said. "But what if you're working in concert with others? Power is in the numbers."

In 1978, Magrill joined the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services Inc., an advocacy group formed by nonprofits. Two years later, he was elected to the board.

One of his proudest moments came when the Florida Network got serious about public policy - and Magrill started sharpening a skill that has served Pasco well for decades.

In 1980, he and the Florida Network lobbied the legislature to replace $300,000 in federal money that ran dry for the state's seven runaway shelters. They got $800,000 the next year - and Magrill got money for an eighth shelter in Pasco, the RAP House for Runaway and Alternatives Project.

In 1983, the Florida Runaway Youth and Family Act was passed, creating a task force to look at the long-term needs of at-risk youth. The secretary of health and rehabilitative services appointed Magrill to it.

"He's very persuasive," said Roy Miller, president of the Children's Campaign Inc., a statewide advocacy group. "There's a very short list of people in Pasco and Central Florida who have said no to George Magrill."

Said Fasano: "He is one of the best lobbyists."

* * *

It's one thing to want to help people. It's another thing to figure out how.

"He's a visionary," said Dee Richter, executive director of the Florida Network.

"He understood at a very young age in his life that to have a voice for children there has to be organization, there has to be a plan, there has to be persistence," she said.

In the 1980s, Pasco was finally developing a network of nonprofits - only they were addressing the same needs. New, emerging needs - like adult mental health issues, family counseling, victims of domestic violence - were going unmet.

Tepper said Magrill helped end that.

"Before the United Way, there was such competition for providing services to the same populations that other populations in need were not being served," the judge said. "George, I always thought, he was critical to getting people to ... see they could meet the other needs, that each could complement the other."

* * *

He was raised in the segregated farming community of Pahokee. Magrill's father, Herman, was a businessman from a long line of businessmen. His mother, May, was a nurse from a family of doctors, nurses and teachers.

Which might explain how he balances the pragmatic and the idealistic.

"This is a not-for-profit service, but it's also a business," Magrill said.

"I'm responsible to keep it running."

But he traces his impulse to help others back to his mother, who still golfs twice a day at age 86.

"It's probably in my genes," he said. "I feel stronger about it than ever at 56."

* * *

He and wife Abbe have been married for 31 years. They have two daughters. Jessica, 16, is a sophomore at Tampa Preparatory School. Jamie, 22, is getting her master's in social work from Dad's alma mater, the University of South Florida.

Guess who tried to talk her out of it.

"Truthfully, he just told me that it's a stressful field to go into," she said. "It's not an easy thing to do with your life."

So how did Magrill make it his life?

"How do you survive 30 years of bad news?" he said. "Maybe there's an element, an undying well of optimism."

No, said the Florida Network's Richter. It's stronger than that.

"In our field, there is an expression called 'fire in the belly,' that you really, really care about other human beings, especially children," she said.

"I don't think anyone can match George Magrill on that."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at or (727) 869-6236.

Fast Facts:

Three questions for George Magrill

What is your proudest accomplishment in Pasco County?

"I don't know if I would gear it towards just Pasco. We estimate we've served about 175,000 children over the years. If I had to zero in on something, that's it. That's the thing I'm most proud of."

What is your biggest disappointment?

"I would say the merger of the Pasco school readiness coalition with the Hernando school readiness coalition into the Early Learning Coalition of Pasco and Hernando Counties Inc. and all the bad decisions, the poor decisions, that have resulted since that time."

(Editor's note: Last year, the coalition dismantled a popular prekindergarten program YFA was paid to run.)

What is the next great social need?

"If you compare the funding in other parts of the state for (child welfare case management and adoption) services, it's so far below where it should be for Pasco and Pinellas counties that ... the system is running a deficit."

(Editor's note: YFA is contracted to handle those services for children under age 6 in Pasco.)

[Last modified February 25, 2007, 21:45:42]

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