The ROX Interview with Carl & Marsha Mueller

“I’ve learned that selflessness is a practice, not a place; a journey much more than a destination.” Kayla Mueller

Prescott LIVING:
Carl and Marsha, because of Kayla’s tragedy, you as her parents have become well-known in Arizona and America during the past eight years. Can you describe how your lives have changed?

Carl Mueller:
They’ve changed tremendously. I had made plans for my retirement, but those plans were totally blown away by what happened. We pretty much reacted day-to-day as it was going on. We’ve been fortunate to meet two presidents — Obama and Trump. We’ve not yet met Biden. We’ve met with so many people on the respective presidents’ staffs. So many people have tried to help us. I tell people that we’re all members of other families of American hostages, the three other families. We’re all members of a club that nobody wants to be in. That’s changed us a lot. We continue to just take it day by day. We worked very closely with President Trump’s staff, his administration — former special presidential envoy and NationalSecurity Advisor to the President Robert C. O’Brien.

Former chief of staff to the defense secretary Kash Patel was deeply involved with us. Even former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The president himself. That in itself is pretty amazing. Who gets to meet presidents? It’s all because of what happened to Kayla.

Prescott LIVING: Marsha?

Marsha Mueller:
It’s hard to know where our lives would have gone. I think I still would have been (tearing up), deeply involved with Kayla, wherever she was in this world, trying to understand what she was doing and how she was doing it and supporting her in every way possible. I would still be deeply involved with our son Eric and his wife, Alex, and our 10-year-old granddaughter Lexi. We are so close to them. Eric has just been amazing. He is there for everything and anything we need. It’s an amazing blessing. Right before this interview, he sent us each a song that popped up on his Pandora list — one was for his mom, and one was for his dad. I thought of all times to do this, I shouldn’t have listened to it right before this interview. It made me very emotional.

Family has always been important to me. And Kayla will always be in my heart. I still don’t know where she is or what happened to her. I will fight every day to get the answers we need and whoever can come to help us. I’ve been amazed at the people who have. I will continue to search for Kayla and bring her back home to Arizona, where she belongs. We support Eric and his family in every way we can. We will always be there for him. He’s been through hell. He truly has. Our granddaughter Lexi was here all day yesterday. They were all three here all day Saturday. We’re really close to them. I thankGod for them every single day.

Carl Mueller:
Because of what we went through, because of what Kayla went through, in those 18 months, along with the other American hostages, we still work with people who are getting Syrians out. We have this person, Marsha, especially, who tells us because of what happened to Kayla, she would not have been able to get these people out of Syria like she has. She’s been successful getting women out of Syria.

Marsha Mueller:
Many were Syrians, so they were also taken as brides. Some now have children. They’re still living in some of these camps. But this woman is working to get those people out. She stays in touch with me about what’s going on. She lets us know what she’s been able to accomplish because of what happened to Kayla. She’s still helping us search for Kayla. It was probably a year or so ago that we sent flyers to these camps in both Arabic and English, asking for help in finding Kayla. What was so odd is they kept being taken down. We had someone put them back up. She helps us get these flyers posted. She’s just part of our group that’s helping.

PRESCOTT LIVING:
Let’s back up. Why did you two come to Prescott? What has the town meant to you as you’ve experienced all this grief and as you work to keep this from happening to anybody else?

Carl Mueller:
We’re both from Illinois, living in Champaign before we moved. My father had moved to Phoenix in the early ‘70s and had lived there for a long time. He was always urging me to come out. “You got to see Arizona. It’s really a great spot.” When I was injured in 1974, I was laid up for quite some time. So I came out to Arizona and liked it. I decided that Marsha and I should move out here. In 1978, we decided to move so we toured the state. We went to Flagstaff, Show Low, Prescott, Yuma, Sedona and Phoenix.

Of all the places we visited, we decided that if we’re going to move, we’d move to Prescott. Marsha got a job at the VA as a nurse. I got him a job here at a local body shop. And in 1981, we started Preferred Auto Body with a partner, Tom Gordon, who is actually a Prescott native.

This community at that time in 1978 was pretty small. A very beautiful place. We just loved it. I joined Kiwanis around 2000. As it turns out, as I said earlier, the generosity of the people in this community — people don’t understand, don’t realize how wonderful it is to have these philanthropists locally who built this community for us. Look at the hospital, the heart center, the breast care center and the YMCA. All these contributed to the nature of the community. The Kieckhefer Foundation, the Margaret T. Morris Foundation, the Harold James Family Foundation, and many others — many things that they built for this community. I think it’s unusual. Again, we’re lucky to all be here. It was so great to raise our kids here in Prescott.

Prescott LIVING:
You must have a tremendous sense of pride in the Kiwanis Club. When you drive by Kayla’s Hands Playground, you see that magnificent park. Can you comment about that playground and what it means?

Carl Mueller:
It’s amazing. I’ll share a little background on that. We had been in Phoenix talking with President Obama at the VA. We were on our way home when a friend in the Kiwanis Club called me and said, “Would you like to come to the Southwest District meeting and speak?” “Well, I don’t know. We’re on our way home from speaking with the president. I’d have to drive over there to that meeting in Farmington, New Mexico. I just don’t think I have that in me.” My friend said, “How about I get somebody to fly you over?” Later that day, he called and
had arranged to have Tim Henrichson from Prescott fly me free to the district convention. So I did, I flew over in a small aircraft. I spoke at the Southwest District convention.

In that speech I said, “We don’t have a grave, we don’t have a marker, we don’t have anything here about Kayla.” A person from here in our town(who?) heard me say that. He decided we need a playground dedicated to Kayla. So that’s how it became

Kayla’s Hands
Playground. And through fundraising, through the Kiwanis Club — I helped with a lot of it — I did a tremendous amount of it, but so did Gary Ballard — a major amount. The generosity of people in this community is just amazing. The Harold James Family Trust put a large amount of money in it. So did Kieckhefer, Margaret T. Morris. So many people contributed to that.

We go by almost every day when we go to the grocery store. The playground is always full of kids. We put that new cover over it last year. Kids can use it rain or shine, snow, whatever. As Joe Baynes, the City parks and rec director, says, “It’s not a playground, it’s a destination park.”

Marsha Mueller:
Kayla’s niece, Lexi, now 10, helped pick out the colors for the equipment. Carl and I picked most of the equipment. We especially felt the zip line would be fun. We went to Phoenix and tried those out ourselves.

Carl Mueller:
To see all the smiling faces, you know Kayla would love it.

Marsha Mueller:
Because Kayla’s work was always with children. When she was in India, it was the children. Even here, we had a young man tell us that when Kayla was with Youth Count or AmeriCorps he was one of the young kids with her. She helped them plant a tree. He wanted to let us know that she was his leader in helping them plant the tree.

Carl Mueller:
I think it was Willow Lake.

Marsha Mueller:
Kayla always had a heart for children, even in Syria and around Turkey. That’s what she was doing — helping moms and children whose fathers and husbands were missing in action in Syria. Kayla tried to help find the moms a way to use their own hands to make things. She found work for them in businesses. A couple of years after Kayla was gone, a woman called us to let us know one of those women were still working in those businesses that Kayla had found for them. They had the dignity of not always needing a handout but were able to do it themselves.

Prescott LIVING:
When did you first perceive this passion that Kayla had for others?

Marsha Mueller:
She always had a heart, even as a young child. Quiet, very observant, always making things and giving us things. She just really was always that way. In grade school, one of her friend’s moms, from when she was probably in second grade or first grade, give me a photo of Kayla with three other little girls. They were in a line, hugging each other, arms around each other. Many of those young girls yet reach out to us. We still know them and their moms and dads. So Kayla, before she could even drive, was in junior high and involved with Youth Count. That got her involved with AmeriCorps. Kayla went on to get both silver and gold medals for community service.

Carl Mueller: Presidential medals.

Marsha Mueller:
That’s part of the reason Kayla ended up getting the Yavapai County Community Foundation’s award for Youth Philanthropist of the Year in 2007. It was always a passion for Kayla. If someone needed help, she would find a way to help them. That was one of the things that the Youth Count person who remains in contact with me adopted. She ended up going to Jordan herself to help Syrian refugees there because Kayla inspired her so much from the time she was in junior high. Kayla’s attitude was “Just do what you can, where you can, when you can, however you can.”

“Here we are. Free to speak out without fear of being killed, blessed to be protected by the same law we are subjected to, free to see our families as we please, free to cross borders and free to disagree. We ha’ve many people to thank for these freedomes and I see it as an injustice not to use them to their fullest.” Kayla Mueller

Carl Mueller:
Many people continue to reach out to us when they hear Kayla’s story. They’re inspired to follow in her path and just be kind and help people. There’s a website that’s called www.forkayla.org that tells about Kayla. For people who are interested, it’s an excellent place to go to research Kayla.

Prescott LIVING:
It seems very apparent that faith plays in a major role in your life and in Kayla’s life. Can you comment about that?

Marsha Mueller:
That’s a hard one for me, too. I wasn’t sure we would ever have children. So when we did, I dedicated my life to my children and to Carl and to helping them become the best they could be. And I see it in both of them. They know what’s right. And they try their best to do it. I see that in our granddaughter, too. I trust the Lord with all my heart and always have and always will. I used to always sing to the kids to help them remember verses. And one is Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understandings in all your ways and submit to Him and He will make your path straight.” I changed it, and I told them in all your ways, acknowledge Him and He will direct your path. He will make your path straight. Once, in high school, Kayla for my birthday or Christmas or Easter or whichever — Kayla was very thrifty with her money — but she brought me this mug about faith.

Carl Mueller:
I was raised Baptist. God was always there for me in the worst of times. I struggled after Kayla was killed. Why did God could let that happen? How could He let her suffer through what she went through? In dire times you do what you need to do. And I think I probably drew on my religious background. We live in an evil, evil world. People need to realize that. And what else do you have but God? There has to be a God. And I think it’s important for us to have that background.

“I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.” Kathleen Delany

Marsha Mueller:
Kayla had an amazing gift, too. She wanted to learn all she could. She had this gift of reaching out to someone to understand what led them to do, act or be who they were. I think if we would all do that, we’ll think and feel dierently. The one thing we’ve got to remember is we all need and want love and understanding. Even if we don’t agree, we need to understand why someone can feel differently. I can tell you —I know from when Kayla was being held captive — one of the girls who was held with her told us that Kayla was in a lot of very dark and cold, horrific places. But the one thing Kayla could say that was positive was there was always at least one person who was kind to her. So even in the darkest of dark, Kayla was still able to find that piece of life that is always there.

Prescott LIVING:
What advice would you give a young person who chooses to follow Kayla’s model — to be a servant to humanity?

Carl Mueller:
Kayla had a gift. It’s not something that you can teach. She just had it in her DNA and her heart to help people. She couldn’t turn her back on people who needed help. It was deeply ingrained in her. But, if you have that need, if you want to serve people, pursue it. Do what you can to help. I came up with a saying awhile back, being in Kiwanis as long as I have. “You’ll never become wealthy doing public service work, but you will become much richer.” There’re so many rewards in helping people less fortunate than yourself.

Marsha Mueller:
One thing we always do, whoever we’re talking with, wherever we are, we always try to tell people, we want Kayla to speak for herself. She’s written quite a few things. Her letters home to us are amazing. They reveal Kayla so well. A lot of times we’ll read some of them to see some of the things she said and did and to sense the happiness that it brought her. She knew the more you give, the more you get. She knew that from a young age and pursued it.

Prescott LIVING:
What would you like to be doing a year or two from now?

Carl Mueller:
We continue, as Marsha said, to seek what happened to Kayla — where she is. We want to bring her home. We want to put her to rest here. We’re working with private individuals. That will be our goal for 2022 as it has been for several years — to find these things out. We’re working outside the government. The Trump administration was helpful to us. We hope the Biden administration will be the same. But we have learned that working outside the government, we get more done. But beyond bringing Kayla home, we want to watch our granddaughter Lexi grow up. We want to be with Lexi and our son, Eric, and Alex, our daughter-in-law.

Marsha Mueller:
Be with our families. Most important, just remember the goodness in the world. There is goodness here. We’ve got to advocate that.