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Providing Respite

By Larry Nagengast, Photography by Scott Nathan

Marnie Oursler never gave much thought to being a role model. “I just want to make people proud of me,” she says. But the Bethany Beach woman has attracted plenty of attention, both for her ideas and her success in the male-dominated homebuilding industry, so she may well be a role model whether it’s her choice or not.

She took another step in that direction in May, when Girls Inc. of Delaware, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower girls to reach their full potential and to value and assert their rights, honored Oursler as a winner of its annual Strong, Smart and Bold Award. Adding extra value to the honor was the stature of the co-recipients: businesswoman, philanthropist and arts patron Tatiana B. Copeland, and prominent nonprofit executive and fundraiser Cynthia Primo Martin.

“Marnie is the perfect role model for girls,” says Valerie Jermusyk, interim executive director for Girls Inc. “She followed her passion. She lives a healthy lifestyle, made smart business decisions and ventured into an area dominated by males.” She’s also given of herself to others, particularly families struggling with illness.
Oursler, who spent many summers in Bethany during her youth, settled there shortly after graduating in 2001 from East Carolina University. Staying in her family’s beach house, she took a summer job as an assistant in a real estate office because “my father didn’t want me working in a bar,” she says.

Oursler soon started making her own spreadsheets to chart selling prices of houses between Rehoboth and Bethany. “The market was hot. I could see property values going up. I studied the data every day, trying to figure out which houses were selling faster, and why,” she recalls.

She found a place in West Bethany — which she calls “the wigwam” — saved her money, and took odd jobs “feeding cats, watching houses and washing cars.” Then she called her father, Marvin Oursler, a homebuilder and president of Marrick Homes, and told him she planned to buy the place and renovate it.

“I thought she was crazy,” he says.

What he hadn’t realized at the time was that Marnie, who as a teenager spent plenty of time on construction sites with him, her uncles and other family members, “was learning building by osmosis,” her father says.

“I’d sweep out houses. I’d work with the carpenters and framers. I’d work with the masons, carrying rebar for them, things like that,” she remembers.

Oursler had learned enough that she was able to fix up “the wigwam” and sold it nine months later, turning a significant profit, which she used to buy a lot and start building a new home for herself. She soon after started building homes for others, which was the start of Marnie Homes. But that success isn’t all that makes her notable. Growing up in Maryland, Oursler remembers her parents’ community service and philanthropic efforts, and she has tried to emulate their example.

In 2008, she teamed with Andrea Wilds, her best friend in college, to create the Angel Breaks Foundation, which would provide vacations for families who needed a respite from serious illnesses. Wilds, then a nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and Oursler found property owners in the beach area willing to donate the use of their homes for a week, and relied on medical personnel to identify deserving families. They organized a couple of 5K runs in Bethany and other events to raise funds, but the project wasn’t sustainable after the first few years.
Wilds had a baby, Oursler started on an MBA program at Duke University, and, Marvin Oursler says, “they really needed one big corporate sponsor” — which, unfortunately, they didn’t get. (Wilds hopes that they will eventually revive the project, and possibly alter its scope to include families in bereavement.)

This year, however, Oursler provided the link to strengthen a similar project. Little Pink Houses of Hope, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that organizes respite vacations for families that include breast cancer patients, was looking to expand the program it started in Bethany last summer. According to Jeanine Patten-Coble, the program’s founder and executive director, one of her associates attended East Carolina with Oursler, and he reached out to her for assistance.

“I linked them up with a couple of real estate agents in Bethany. We got them 10 homes,” Oursler says. Though she downplays her role, Patten-Coble calls it “a pivotal connection.”

One of the connections Oursler made was with Ann Raskauskas, a broker with Bethany Area Realty. She became coordinator for this year’s “retreat” (as the vacation week is called), held in early June.

“Marnie put the call out. Ann took it and ran with it,” Patten-Coble says.

Raskauskas was only too happy to participate. “Marnie knew that I had done volunteer work with breast cancer causes for the last 15 years,” she explains.

While she may not consider herself a role model, Oursler does offer three key pieces of advice for young women seeking success: build a support network, improve yourself and become a thought leader.

“You need people to push you along and to help you get up when you fail,” Oursler says. “I always want to be better today than I was yesterday in some aspect of my life. And use your creativity. Thinking outside the box has always helped me differentiate myself from others.”