George Magrill broke the news to his employees on Tuesday. He's retiring after 37 years running one of the state's premier nonprofit agencies dedicated to saving children and fixing families.
Thirty-seven years! It's a remarkable record of endurance in a job where "you are on the precipice of disaster every moment," offered one of his board members, Ray Gadd, assistant superintendent of Pasco schools.
In the child welfare business, social workers are outnumbered and underpaid warriors who get far more blame than credit. It's a prescription for burnout, but Magrill, 63, has not only survived, he has retained dozens of key staffers whom he insists will keep Youth and Family Alternatives Inc. strong long after he heads off to a well-deserved rest.
Loyalty runs up and down the chain at this agency. It explains how a man with the talent to lead any number of businesses would stick around for nearly four decades on that precipice. It explains his resilience in dealing with a Tallahassee bureaucracy that constantly puts his funding — and therefore his clients and employees — at risk.
Magrill, soft spoken and professorial, learned how to run with the wolves. While it might seem obvious that social programs designed to save children's lives warrant primary attention from lawmakers, they would get lost without effective lobbyists. And by all accounts, Magrill became one of the best.
In February 1977, fresh from a master's program at the University of South Florida and just 26, he took over the agency then known as FOCUS in a storefront office on New Port Richey's Main Street. He had a $45,000 annual budget and a narrow mission of helping people with drug and alcohol problems. Magrill wondered why there weren't more nonprofit agencies in a county with such need and worked with community leaders to fix that. In 1979, he helped get a $40,000 grant that led to a local United Way.
Meanwhile, Magrill and his board of directors changed his agency's name and broadened its mission. "I didn't have a clue,'' he said, looking back on those early days. "I just followed my instincts and what seemed to make sense.''
Today the agency has a $20 million budget and 325 employees in 13 counties. It still provides substance abuse and mental health counseling, but its major focus is managing foster care and adoption services. It operates runaway shelters and counsels parents having trouble with their children. Magrill estimates the agency has served more than 225,000 families.
It's difficult to imagine YFA without Magrill, but he might never have taken the job in the first place if not for his mother, May, a former nurse. Magrill was 22 and had just finished his undergraduate studies at USF when his father, Herman, died suddenly from a heart attack at 56 in Pahokee, where he ran a general store.
"It had such a profound effect on me,'' recalled Magrill. He wanted to return to Pahokee, where he had grown up with younger brother, Ben. He wanted to help with the family business, but his mother insisted he follow through with his goals.
Not surprisingly, he remains close to his mother, who is 92. Also not surprisingly considering that loyalty thing, he has been married for 38 years to Abbe. They have two daughters, Jamie, 30, who also got her master's in social work from USF, and Jessica, 23, who is working on a master's in business entrepreneurship in San Francisco. The Magrills are already planning trips to California and to the North Carolina cabin where George loves to escape into his books and where he most recently sprouted a beard — gray, but he kind of likes it.
He expects to get more involved in his hobby of growing landscaping palms. "My job has always called for me to use my head," he said, "but I love to work with my hands. I love growing things."
Magrill has grown Youth and Family Alternatives from a seed but figures to turn it over to a new CEO by spring. He will remain an unpaid board member of the agency's fledgling foundation, created to offset the state budget cuts that have caused such uncertainty and anxiety over the years.
"After all these years," he said, "it's hard to imagine not being involved in some capacity. I want to help out, but it's time for somebody else to run it. I'm incredibly proud that I can leave knowing the agency is in good hands."