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Readers Digest August 1991

Someone Who Cares by John G. Hubbell

A young woman is crying so hard she cannot talk. Hours earlier she had found her daughter dead in her crib, a victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Unmarried, with five other children, she is on welfare and does not know how to arrange for a burial. Her friends take her to a two story brick building in downtown Minneapolis. The sign above the door reads Sharing and Caring Hands.

Mary Jo Copeland, the well-dressed and well-groomed director of the center, hugs the woman. “Don’t worry. Your baby’s going to have a funeral. We’ll take care of everything. Pray with me.” Then Mary Jo calls the county welfare department, which agrees to pay $572 toward the baby’s burial. She finds a cemetery plot and a priest.

Mary Jo created Sharing and Caring Hands to provide food, clothing, dental care, a room for the night, a shower and shave or a bus ticket home to people who fall through the cracks of the welfare system. She reaches out to anyone who asks for help: battered women and children, vagrants, chronic alcoholics, drug addicts, the mentally ill, ex-convicts. “So many programs have eligibility requirements and frustrate and defeat people,” say Minneapolis Mayor Donald M. Fraser. “But with Mary Jo, all anyone has to do is walk in.”

Now, an older woman enters the building with a nine-year-old child. Outside it is far below zero, and the girl is shivering, wearing only a thin dress and sandals. He eyes are swollen shut, and bruises and cuts cover her face and arms. “Her mother got drunk and beat her up,” her grandmother explains. It happens a lot.”

Mary Jo’s eyes flood with tears as she talks to the youngster. Are you cold honey? Do you hurt? At first the girl looks away, but as Mary Jo gently persists she finally turns and lets herself be hugged. Helpers take the child for a hot bath; then they provide winter clothing. Mary Jo encourages the grandmother to initiate the legal steps that will transfer custody of the girl from her mother to her grandmother. In walks Curtis Snow, 32, an out-of-work chef. Several weeks before he lost his job and hasn’t been able to find another. He, his wife and their two daughters have been sleeping in their car. “I applied for federal assistance but was told nothing could be done before the end of the month,” he says.

Mary Jo finds the family an apartment, pays enough rent to carry them to their first federal payment and gives Snow some money to live on. Meanwhile he will keep looking for a job.

“Oh-oh, Mary Jo.” No one who comes to Sharing and Caring Hands knows more about deprivation and loneliness than Mary Jo Copeland. Born in Rochester, Minn., in 1942, she spent the first six years of her life in the home of her affluent grandparents, who cherished and pampered her. Mary Jo was only vaguely aware of her parents, who visited occasionally but never showed any affection for her. She later learned that her father was unable to support his family and had left her with his parents. When Mary Jo’s mother had a baby boy, the grandparents thought it was time to bring the family together. Mary Jo moved in with her parents.

Often her father awoke in a rage, cursing his wife for her abominable cooking and housekeeping. In the evenings he might beat her. My mother would scream and plead with him,” Mary Jo remembers, “and I’d sit outside for hours praying that my mother wouldn’t die.”

Her mother’s main focus in life says Mary Jo was simply “to keep my father from becoming angry.” Yet she was so overwrought that she frequently seemed incapable of dealing with the things that enraged him. The house was never clean,” Mary Jo recalls. Beds went unmade, rooms undusted; dishes rarely got washed. The tub was filthy, and I couldn’t take baths.”

In Parochial school, Mary Jo remained aloof and alone. She had awful body odor. Other children would shout, “Oh-oh, there’s Mary Jo.” And hold their noses. “I was in such emotional turmoil that I couldn’t concentrate on schoolwork. My poor report cards enraged my father, and he would insist I was stupid and worthless.”

“Don’t you see?” The one thing that did fire her interest in school was religion class. I was enthralled with the idea that God loves us all equally and unconditionally,” she says. “I memorized my catechism and said the rosary all the time. Soon I realized there were lots of children like me – some even worse off. I began to know that God had some special task in mind for me.”

Mary Jo’s father required her to pay a good share of her Catholic high school’s tuition. She stayed after school each day and scrubbed floors and blackboards. One evening during her sophomore year she went alone to a dance. Spotting an attractive lad, she approached him on the pretext that she was looking for someone. “Are you Tom Kelly? She asked, making up the name. He said he was not, and she started to walk away. “Wait a minute,” he said, “would you like to dance?” His name was Dick Copeland, and they danced all evening. He saw her home and asked if he could call her for a date. Soon they were together constantly, though it was a year before Mary Jo told him about her home life, which was becoming increasingly unbearable.

One summer Dick got a glimpse of the instinct burgeoning inside Mary Jo. “She was working in a dime store,” he says, “and one rainy day after she picked up her paycheck we saw a young mother walking with a couple of children. They were raggedly dressed and obviously very poor. Mary Jo talked to the woman and took her to a supermarket. She spent her entire paycheck on groceries and then gave her own raincoat to the woman. I said, “Mary Jo, your father will kill you!” She said, “I don’t care. She needs a coat. Don’t you see how poor they are?”

In June of 1960, Mary Jo graduated from high school. The following year she and Dick were married. She was employed as a nurse’s aide while Dick worked his way through college.

The children came early and often. Dick left college for a job with a department store, and the family bought a house in the suburbs. “We took our children to the park, circus, zoo and the beach,” Mary Jo says, We made sure they had normal, happy lives.” Every Christmas the family wrapped presents they had bought for poor families. “We wanted to teach our kids the right way to live,” she explains. While expecting her seventh child, Mary Jo fell into a terrible depression. A physician put her on a tranquilizer, which helped, but she kept using it after the baby was born. Soon she had trouble sleeping, so the doctor gave her sleeping pills; then he prescribed a powerful painkiller to help her through her eighth pregnancy. I was taking a combination of Valium, painkillers and sleeping pills every day.” She says.

For nearly five years she was addicted. It wasn’t until her twelfth child was born that that she summoned up the courage to dump all her pills down the toilet. But she had started drinking on weekends. “I found a single drink relaxed me,” she said. “So I began taking two, three, the four and five drinks.””You’re replacing one addiction with another!” Dick warned. “Leave me alone!” She screamed and stormed off to the bedroom. She fell to her knees and prayed, “Please help me Lord. I’ll never accomplish any thing this way.” Soon after, she stopped drinking.

Doughnuts and Sandwiches. The birth of Mary Jo’s twelfth child had resulted in a hysterectomy. Her whole life seemed to catch up with her – the terrible years with her parents, the bitter loneliness of her school days, the struggles of raising such a large family, her addictions. Overwhelmed, she went through the motions of life – cooking meals, sending the kids to school, cleaning house – but she had no real interest in things and she felt unneeded.

For nearly three years she didn’t leave the house, didn’t even bother to get dressed. Finally one day Dick said, “Mary, you can’t bottle up all the love that’s inside you. Look what you’ve accomplished with our kids. You’ve got too much to share with the rest of the world!”

She became a volunteer at Catholic Charities, worked at a storefront location, serving coffee and donuts to street people, talking to them by the hour, learning about them. An innovator, she contacted parishes throughout the city, offering them a chance to prepare, deliver and serve a hot lunch to the poor one day per month. Many congregations were eager to do so, and soon hundreds of people were being fed at Catholic Charities every day.

Mary Jo chafed at the bureaucracy that governed organized charity, however. She hated the idea that needy people had to suffer interviews and fill out forms before they could be fed and clothed. “I’ve seen workers turn away a guy who’s starving, because he showed up an hour after lunch was served,” she says. “Who cares what time it is? Take him in the kitchen and make him a sandwich!”

She dreamed of starting an all-volunteer program that would accept no federal or state money. Meanwhile, she kept circumventing the bureaucracy. While shopping for her own
family, she bought extra shoes and shirts to give away to the poor. She also handed out five and ten dollar bills to help with financial emergencies.

Dream Come True. Mary Jo’s efforts began to attract attention. In 1985, she received an $1100 public service award as well as $1100 from a local TV station and decided it was time to make her dream come true. She found an inner city storefront and put the sign Sharing and Caring Hands in the window. “I had to sign a $36,000 lease for three years,” says Dick, a food company buyer. I had no money, but Mary told me not to worry about it.” He Grins. “So I signed it.”

To get funds and volunteers, Mary Jo wrote to business leaders and spoke before civic groups, foundations and churches. She discovered to her surprise, that she was a powerful speaker. “People were spellbound when she laid out a picture of God’s working in the world through the poor,” said the Rev. Lawrence Johnson, a Maplewood priest. “She made it seem possible to make a difference.”

Today a thousand volunteers help her minister to the hundreds who crowd into Sharing and Caring Hands during the day. Individuals, corporate foundations and businesses have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mary Jo has been recognized by the governor of Minnesota, the Mayors of Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center, Minn., and many organizations. Last December, the Caring Institute celebrated her as one of America’s ten most caring people, “those exceptional few who by their selfless acts ennoble the human race.

A homeless man wearing an ancient, tattered parka limps into Sharing and Caring Hands. It’s my feet,” he tells Mary Jo. They hurt so bad I can hardly walk.” She kneels and begins removing the torn, worn out tennis shoes from his ulcerated feet. She brings a basin of warm soapy water and gently washes them, applying disinfectant and a soothing ointment. She dresses his feet in new socks and walking shoes. “Look after your feet,” she tells him. “They must carry you a long way in this world, and then all the way to God.” Her eyes brim with tears as she watches him walk away.

“Jesus washed his Apostles feet,” she explains. "He came to serve, not to be served. Can we do less?”

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