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Cindy Mustard: Hometown Hero

Friday, January 11, 2008 | 5:00 p.m. CST; updated 10:47 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Cindy Mustard and the Volunteer Action Center staff coordinated the Christmas baskets program held at Trinity Presbyterian Church held in early December. Mustard, who sometimes went without her big, orange name tag, also helped carry gifts out to the cars of the people she was helping.

Do you know Cindy Mustard?

There’s a good chance you do. Or at least that her name rings a bell. Because Mustard is an icon in Columbia, an example and a symbol of what it means to devote one’s life to helping others.

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On a chilly Monday afternoon in early December, Mustard sat at a table at Trinity Presbyterian Church and collected cash donations for the Voluntary Action Center’s annual Christmas baskets program, which works with community sponsors to provide thousands of gifts to families whose incomes otherwise would prevent them from fully enjoying the holidays.

Mustard, executive director of the Voluntary Action Center, greeted practically everyone who walked in the door of Trinity Presbyterian by his or her first name. While all the other volunteers at the church sported big orange name tags as they scurried around organizing, sorting and tagging donated gifts, Mustard went without.

She didn’t need a name tag. Everyone knows who she is. And most who ran into her on that busy day greeted her warmly.

“Hi, Cindy,” they would say with a tone that suggested they were talking to an old friend.

Most people recognize Mustard as the face of the Voluntary Action Center and the force behind its success. It’s the public side of her life that the community’s most familiar with. But spend some real time with Mustard, and you’ll learn she’s so much more: a former hippie-adventurer, a sixth-generation member of Columbia’s Conley family, a mentor, a proud mother of a budding filmmaker and a woman who has dedicated more than 30 years of her life to easing the lives of the less fortunate.

Peggy Kirkpatrick, executive director of the Central Missouri Food Bank, said Mustard’s history and work have made her an integral figure in the community.

“Cindy’s always been right in the middle of everything,” Kirkpatrick said. “She’s almost an institution unto herself.”

Gaining a global perspective

The year 1968 came and went in a jarring flash: an unpopular war on the other side of the globe, a presidential candidate and a civil rights leader assassinated, riots ablaze in the streets. A pivotal year in the history of the United States also turned out to be a pivotal year for Mustard, who at the time was a self-described 22-year-old hippie, minus the drugs.

Armed with a few years of work experience and money from sold stocks, Mustard decided to travel. Originally, her plans were simple: She’d visit Bangkok at a cost of $900. But when she learned she could practically go around the world for only $300 more, she decided she’d go for the latter, to get more bang for her buck.

Before the adventure, she and her then-boyfriend and travel partner, Marvin Mustard, left Kansas City and went to San Francisco to plan their trip. Back home in Columbia, her parents were, at least briefly, unhappy with her decision.

“But they got over it,” she said. “My dad kept all the letters I sent and had his secretary type them up.”

That “wild trip back in ’68” changed her life. Throughout the trip, Mustard and her companion tried to economize. “We were always looking for a free night or a free meal.”

The young travelers’ route took them to many destinations: Australia, Japan, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, London, France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Morocco, to name a few.

In Ibiza, Spain, the couple decided to relax for a while and shared an apartment for three months. At the time, Ibiza wasn’t the nightlife capital it is now. But it was cheap, perfect for Mustard’s budget.

Although it was nearly 40 years ago, she’s forgotten few of the details. She soaked up the different cultures by spending time with locals and frequenting museums. She remembers hitchhiking in Malaysia, spending the night in a Sikh temple and participating in one of the world’s largest anti-war marches in London. She recalls staring up at starry skies of perfection on the island of Formentera, off the coast of Spain, and sleeping in a farmhouse with a bunch of vagabond travelers.

Regardless of where they were, Mustard said she found a certain similarity in the people they met. They were warm and accommodating, no matter what country they called home. After about 25,000 miles traveled and enough experiences to write a novel, Mustard returned home to the states, heartened by the idea that people around the world were gracious and kind. She felt refreshed to see such humanity.

“I saw parts of the world I would have never seen,” she said. “I think it gave me a better appreciation of our whole planet.”

Roots that run deep

Even with her world traveler status, Mustard’s roots remained firmly planted in Columbia, where she has lived the majority of her life. For Mustard, driving down Conley Avenue through the heart of the MU campus is a trip down memory lane. Her great-grandparents built the Conley House, a stately manor that continues to stand out even as campus buildings surround it.

Mustard’s family first came to Columbia in 1820. Since then, six generations of the family have lived and worked here. George Conley Miller, Mustard’s father, was a prominent attorney and community activist. Her mother, Elizabeth Nye Miller, volunteered at the hospital and led her Girl Scout troop.

Growing up, Mustard says with a laugh, she knew everybody in town.

“I could go downtown and go to the dress shop and say ‘Charge it to George Miller,’ and that’s all you do,” she said. “That’s really small town.”

When talking about her childhood, Mustard ends her sentences with a colloquial “ya’ know,” as if she’s talking to someone she’s had a hundred conversations with before. It’s easy and relaxed conversation. She shares her history in bite-size anecdotes. She chooses simple sentences and speaks about her family in humble words. But, you can tell by the stories she shares that she takes pride in being a Conley.

Childhood friends described her family as “white bread,” denoting their typical, well-to-do 1950s lifestyle.

“We were lucky,” Mustard said.

Still, Mustard’s parents taught her and her two sisters the importance of giving, primarily by volunteering themselves. Her father, for example, served on the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission and was active at First Presbyterian Church.

“I think it’s the way we were brought up,” Mustard said. “It was instilled in us to give back to the community.”

Former Boone County Presiding Circuit Judge Frank Conley is Mustard’s second cousin. Although he and Mustard spent little time together when they were children (he’s several years old than she), Conley said he remembers George Miller’s commitment to his church. Conley said that when the Presbyterian congregation wanted to build an addition to its church, Miller was in charge of contacting people to give to the cause.

“He was a person who was very benevolent in seeing the church had the things that they needed,” Conley said.

Mustard said her first real experience as a volunteer — besides selling Girl Scout cookies — came in high school, when she sold caramel apples for Teens Against Polio.

Former State Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson also grew up in Columbia. She and Mustard attended grade school together. They had similar upbringings, and Wilson said they’ve always been friends. Nowadays, Wilson often runs into Mustard at community meetings, where residents discuss the arts, social services or the future of Columbia.

“Cindy and I have crossed paths both professionally and personally,” Wilson said. “(We) have had a linked life in so many ways that it is somewhat emblematic in the way Cindy operates — she’s totally embedded in the community.”

Back in Columbia and making a difference

Sitting on her living room sofa in her house on Greenwood Avenue, Mustard looks out the window behind her and reminisces about playing in the yard as a child. She talks fondly about knowing all the kids in the neighborhood and being able to see deer running through the woods nearby.

In 1988, after a 24-year hiatus in Kansas City, Mustard and her husband decided to return to Columbia and live in her childhood home. During her time away, Mustard had worked for CampFire Boys and Girls, a not-for-profit youth development organization.

Both her mother and father had died, so she bought her sisters’ shares of the family estate and moved back into the house her parents built. Katie, Mustard’s daughter, was in third grade when they moved back.

“It was just kind of a spur-of-the-moment decision,” Mustard said. “We liked Columbia, and we thought it was good to have (Katie) here, and we knew people here.”

Although Mustard said it was a little weird at first, the transition from Kansas City to Columbia went smoothly. She believes she’s where she belongs. She points to a familiar armchair in the living room.

“My dad always sat in that chair. I sometimes wonder, is he watching over us?”

Mustard’s father, who died of cancer in September 1987, was and is her role model.

“He worked and got involved in the community because he wanted to make it better,” she said. “He had a command presence, and I sort of do, too, around here.”

Mustard has directed the Voluntary Action Center for 17 years. The agency is known as the hub for Boone County’s social services because it connects people to volunteer opportunities and provides an array of emergency services to those in need.

By the end of 2007, Mustard said, the center had helped nearly 17,000 families. The assistance varies. Many receive holiday gifts. Others get money to pay for bus tickets so they can get to work or for uniforms they need for their jobs. The agency also raises money for an array of causes, such as sending children to summer basketball camps.

If the challenge requires volunteers, there’s a good chance the Voluntary Action Center — and Mustard — are involved.

“We can make a difference in someone’s life from all sorts of angles,” Mustard said. “It’s not just one aspect. We fill the gaps where services aren’t met.”

In the day-to-day activity of the agency, Mustard does whatever is needed, which can vary from filling out paperwork, talking to volunteers or attending meetings. The agency’s office lobby goes from packed to empty in the span of an hour.

Usually, Mustard can be found seated at her desk behind messy stacks of paperwork, clad in a sweatshirt and jeans. Her black circle-rimmed glasses remain perched at the end of her nose as she flips from one paper to the next. The phone rings, her employees come in and out, talking nonstop.

It can be hectic, but Mustard takes everything in stride. Her voice is loud, but she never shouts. She simply wants people to hear her and understand. And she feels comfortable talking to anyone.

“I feel just as comfortable talking to a president of a bank as I do talking to a third-grader,” Mustard said.

Mustard said she and her four full-time and two part-time staff members do their best to handle everything.

“We get an awful lot done,” Mustard said.

As the director, one of Mustard’s many responsibilities is to ensure the agency’s financial stability. A United Way organization, the Voluntary Action Center’s money comes solely from local contributors, such as the Interfaith Council of Churches. The agency receives no federal grants.

In September, when donations from area churches ran short, Mustard said the agency was forced to suspend some services for low-income people, such as helping pay for prescriptions or for gasoline.

Mustard decided to go to the community for help. An employee suggested she book some time on the morning radio talk show with David Lile on KFRU/1400 AM to explain the situation.

“All of a sudden, people started sending us money,” Mustard said. “We had $20,000 in 10 days.”

Lile said Mustard was on the air for only five or six minutes.

“I think she is straightforward and very clear,” Lile said. “But she does it in a way that doesn’t come across as ‘shame on you’ for not doing this.”

In an editorial in the Columbia Daily Tribune, publisher Hank Waters praised the community’s quick response and Mustard’s “good reputation.”

“… under Director Cindy Mustard the agency is known to be thoroughly honest and dependable, using its money more prudently than most,” Waters wrote.

Helping others help others

Mustard’s resume lists 15 organizations for which she volunteers, including the Columbia Volunteer Network, the Downtown Rotary Club and the Hickman High School A+ Advisory Board. But, from talking with other people in the community, it’s clear she has done and continues to do much more.

Marie Hunter of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs said Mustard was co-chair of the committee that drafted Columbia’s first cultural plan in 1993.

“From the perspective of this office, (the first plan) is an essential milestone in what we do,” Hunter said. “That document has served as a blueprint for our programs and services.”

Mustard served on the City Council-appointed Cultural Affairs Commission for 12 years.

“It’s pretty amazing. Not a lot of people volunteer for the same cause for that long,” Hunter said.

Mustard has taken on the unofficial role of mentor in the local world of social services. When Marcia Walker first became executive director of Meals on Wheels 12 years ago, Mustard stepped in to help her learn the ropes.

“I had just gotten into not-for-profit agency work, and Cindy taught me about who I needed to be and how I needed to raise money,” Walker said. “This is one of the things she does very well.”

Over the years of meetings, community activities and run-ins at their children’s school functions, Walker and Mustard became close friends. Walker said Mustard shares what she knows.

“One of her great strengths is she’s willing to share anything,” Walker said. “Nothing is a secret with her.”

Former Voluntary Action Center employee Steve Hollis said Mustard also taught him how to be an effective boss.

“She wasn’t in the office micromanaging us,” Hollis said. “Something I learned from Cindy is you hire good people and let them do the job that you hired them to do.”

Hollis, who now manages the city’s Office of Community Services, said he still interacts with Mustard and continues to find her commitment to the less fortunate unwavering.

“In her heart, she believes in helping people,” Hollis said. “It’s not just a job for Cindy.”

A life of her own

Coincidentally, even in some of her hobbies, Mustard tries to put the pieces together.

In the precious little free time she has between commitments, Mustard tackles jigsaw puzzles or crosswords. She also enjoys reading and cooking. And she loves a good rock ’n’ roll song, courtesy of The Beatles, Elvis or The Eagles.

Marvin Mustard, her husband of 38 years, is the quieter one who stands by for support. He runs his own antique business and, unlike his wife, doesn’t spend much time in the public eye.

It was after the year they spent traveling together that they decided to get married.

“I think we just really get along,” Mustard said. “We’ve had our ups and down like anybody.”

Finding out about Mustard as a mother is a bit harder to do. Her daughter, Katie, is incommunicado, hiking the Patagonia region of South America.

A budding filmmaker, Katie spends most of her time outside the United States. Mustard’s office is filled with photos of her daughter: school portraits, a snapshot of her and Jay Leno; a picture of Katie smiling and giving a thumbs-up while skydiving graces Mustard’s computer desktop.

Sitting among friends and co-workers during the Christmas baskets collection, someone asks about Katie’s whereabouts. During the ensuing chat, someone comments that Katie got her sense of adventure from her mom.

Mustard smiles.

“I was only adventurous one year of my life,” Mustard said. “She keeps doing it.”

In the same conversation, Mustard refers to herself as “old and dull.” She’s modest by nature, but even a brief glimpse into Mustard’s life reveals her description to be wholly untrue.

The Rev. Rim Massey of Trinity Presbyterian Church has known Mustard for almost two decades and was on the Voluntary Action Center’s board when it hired Mustard to lead the agency.

“She doesn’t put on airs,” Massey said. “She does what she does and does it well.”

Mustard said she learned early on as director that she should be willing to do whatever she asked her staff to do.

“You’re their equal, you’re not above them.”

Her colleagues say she practices what she preaches. Walker gave a recent example.

“At the Roots ’N’ Blues festival, she was in charge of keeping one of the streets blocked off, so she did that because it’s what they needed her to do,” Walker said. “It doesn’t matter how low profile it is, she will do it.”

Consistent compassion

Dressed in a purple Hickman Alumni ’65 sweatshirt, Mustard moved quickly up and down the halls of Trinity Presbyterian Church. It was the day that families were coming to pick up their holiday gifts, and it was busy.

Mustard barely sat for more than five minutes. She was inside taking names, then outside in the cold, wheeling a bike to someone’s car, then back inside to find someone’s missing package. She stayed professional and friendly, greeting those she knew when they walked in and wishing everyone who left a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”

In one week, the Christmas baskets program served about 1,211 families. During the second week of the program, the Voluntary Action Center expected to serve roughly another 2,000 families.

The gifts ranged from basics such as deodorant or toilet paper to more fun gifts for the kids, such as new bicycles or gift cards to Best Buy.

Sarah Bard, a mother of four, said she has benefited from the program for five years.

“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have Christmas,” Bard said, adding that Mustard has been “like a good friend through the years.”

Carleen Coates said she participates in the program on and off. Coates used to drive a school bus and sometimes gets a little behind with money when school’s out. This year, she said one of her three daughters asked for a bicycle because hers was stolen earlier in the year.

While waiting for her family’s gifts, Coates said, “We’ll see if she gets a bike.”

A few minutes later, a volunteer appeared with one, bow and all.

Coates let out a sigh of happy relief. “So, she did.”

People in the community appreciate and recognize what the Voluntary Action Center and Mustard have done for them. Mustard said she runs into people who tell her how thankful they are. There was the guy at Office Depot who told her how the center had helped him get a job, and the Culligan delivery guy who came to the agency’s office and told Mustard how they had helped him when his wife suddenly went into labor and they needed milk for the baby.

It’s these types of changes, the ones you can see, that Mustard likes most. She shares what she knows and gives what she can.

She has continued to be strong, even through the tough times in her professional and personal lives. Her younger sister’s death from cancer in 1999 is one subject Mustard doesn’t say much about. The weary sound of her voice is testament to the pain she feels.

“It helped make her very compassionate to young women who are struggling with cancer,” Walker said. “She has felt the death of her sister.”

The next stage

In 2009, Mustard plans to retire from the Voluntary Action Center. She’ll be 65. The little agency she has helped nurture and grow will have to spread its wings and fly without the guidance of its beloved leader.

Her most recent award, Citizen of the Year, given to her in December by the League of Women Voters of Columbia/Boone County, will be added to a vast collection of community recognitions.

Walker said she will retire a year after Mustard. The two of them love to talk about what they’ll do then. Mustard said she and another friend might start doing tours of Columbia, or she might even work part-time at a bookstore. And, of course, she’ll continue to volunteer.

Hunter said Mustard will always be an inspiration.

“Whenever I feel tired or overwhelmed, I think about Cindy and all the things she is doing. And that provides me (with) motivation.”


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