“Hope Begins Here.”
That’s the motto of Cunningham Children’s Home in Urbana, Illinois.
And giving hope is what Marlin Livingston is all about.
It’s a passion and calling that he executes every day as CEO of the 120-year-old home for children and youth struggling with serious emotional and behavioral challenges brought about by abuse, neglect, mental illness and more. And it’s a passion he’s had for much of his life.
“I have always been worried about the world, concerned with it,” the Pinnacle Forum Partner explains. “As a child I remember seeing a Native American commercial with an Indian looking over a polluted river and crying. I remember crying every time that commercial ran.”
That broken heart for the hurting ignited a passion that has stayed with him for decades and that shows no sign of diminishing.
“My passion is to fight for those on the margins,” Marlin says. “I am on fire for it, more now than ever. And because I work for a faith-based orphanage/residential treatment center for abused and neglected children I sort of get to play a role in helping save the world for the here and for the eternity.”
And he credits his peers in Pinnacle Forum in Central Illinois with encouraging and equipping him to continue to execute on his God-given calling, describing his Forum as “central to my surviving” as a high-impact leader.
“My Forum has coached me through some very tough professional and personal challenges,” the 49-year-old says. “I have actually been more inspired by learning of my partners’ failures than their successes. Their steadfast faith has inspired me to work hard and take some risks in my faith walk.”
Marlin explains how his own faith journey got off to a somewhat rocky start.
“I was raised in a Christian home,” he recounts, “but not exactly an Ozzie and Harriet one, as my parents had five failed marriages throughout their life. I have always believed there was a God and that he sent Christ as my Savior. But, I struggled most of my life fully committing, surrendering to God. I never thought I was worthy of God’s grace — too much sin, too much half stepping. I was a ‘punch your ticket’ Christian and never felt I had enough hole punches.”
That changed in his early 30s, when Marlin told a non-Christian friend that he had never been baptized because he was not really doing everything right in God’s eyes. “He laughed,” Marlin recalls, “and said that I would never be good enough if that’s what it took. In a second I agreed — and (soon) met with a pastor to get baptized.”
As often happens, Marlin’s faith would be tested – and he would stumble. When his brother died in a motorcycle accident, leaving behind a wife and two young children, Marlin turned away from church and embarked on what he describes as “a self-destruction tirade that nearly cost my marriage and my career.”
Fortunately, he continues, “God threw me a life preserver just in time” – in the form of a combat tour in Iraq with the U.S. Army.
Marlin had joined the Army National Guard after graduating from high school, and served faithfully while going on to college and starting a career. But it wasn’t until decades later, in 2006, that he would be activated and sent to Iraq, where he would spend 359 days as an infantry officer with the Army’s 1st Cavalry.
“I was remarkably at peace while being deployed at Iraq – I never feared dying really,” Marlin says. “I was concerned about my family, if I did not come home… but my faith allowed me to cope with the deployment and come home better than most.”
With 23 years of active and reserve military service – and 20 combat patrols and 18 medical evacuations after hostile action – Marlin was awarded the Defense Meritorious Service Medal for exemplary conduct and bravery in ground combat during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
More important, he says, “through my deployment I grew to love God with all my heart and have been at peace since,” even though he confesses, “I still struggle with the notion that I am worthy of God’s grace.”
Marlin originally had planned to go to law school after high school, and was working at an alcohol and drug detox to save money for college. “While working there, a kid who was very close to my age thanked me for saving his life. I quickly abandoned my plans to go to law school and pursued social work.”
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees, he worked briefly at Cunningham before heading to Florida, where he would become executive director of Kids Hope United in the Sunshine State.
But then the CEO position at Cunningham Children’s Home popped up – “The opportunity to work at a ‘truly’ faith-based agency that gives kids a chance to know Christ … are you kidding me?” – and Marlin headed home to Illinois.
Cunningham Children’s Home traces its origins back to 1895 when a couple deeded their home to the women of the local Methodist Church to care for “homeless and friendless” children. That ministry grew and grew and today, with its vision of seeing “every child thrive by providing a safe place to heal, learn and grow,” the home provides caring support and therapeutic intervention to some 300 children, youth, young adults and their families each year.
As CEO since 2008, Marlin has had his share of challenges, including currently trying to carry out an $8.5 million capital campaign in the midst of the state’s severe fiscal crisis. His peers, he says, “think I am out of my mind to think God might deliver on the promise of a new school for our kids at Cunningham,” but Marlin carries on, encouraged in part by his Pinnacle Forum peers.
Marlin sees Pinnacle Forum and its Four “E” Strategy – Encourage, Equip, Engage, Execute – as “an awesome anchor for how leaders should act and marshal their talents to have an impact. It is a perfect guide to reflect on from time to time – to ask yourself if you are living up to what God would have you do…”
For Marlin and wife Denise of 23 years, living up to what God would have them do has included adopting two sons, now 22 and 17; having one of their own, now 15; and serving as foster parents for more than 20 children.
In addition to working on all four of the E’s and making sure to be balanced, Marlin also encourages his Pinnacle Forum peers across the country to get real in their weekly Forums.
“Take risks – share your stuff,” he says. “The more I have shared about by my vulnerabilities, my shortcomings, my sin, the more encouragement I have received from my group.”
If it’s done right, he says, the Forum “is a very healthy place.”
For more information on Marlin Livingston, visit the website at www.cunninghamhome.org.