Do Something: How one courageous woman deals with a pandemic

Mary Jo Copeland greets people Oct. 19 as they enter before breakfast at Sharing & Caring Hands, the food kitchen and charity organization that Copeland founded and runs in Minneapolis. (Jenn Ackerman for The Washington Post)

By Mary Jo Copeland, founder of Sharing & Caring Hands, a food kitchen and charity in Minneapolis. Her story, told to Eli Saslow, was published in the Washington Post.

There’s always a line. The line gets longer. I wake up at 4 in the morning to start helping these families, but this pandemic never rests. I’ve been doing this work for 40 years, and I’ve never seen pain like there is right now. People come here from all over Minnesota because they’ve lost their jobs, their homes, their savings — their dignity. They’re carrying around the hurt of what’s been done to them. They’ve got nothing but anger, sadness and fear.

I had a lady show up the other day, another first-timer. Her life was falling apart in a hundred ways, and she started going on to me about this virus and all the protests happening downtown. She was obsessing over this presidential election. She said: “I’m terrified right now. It feels like I’m watching the whole world come unglued.”

I told her: “Okay, then stop watching. What’s something you can do?”

I’ve always tried to think like that. I’m not saying I don’t have my own anxieties. I’m 78, and this virus has already set me back in a lot of ways. I’ve lost more this year than ever, but what good have negativity and fear ever done for people? Nothing. Zero. You can waste your whole life as one endless complaint. Okay, yes, this country has big problems. But who do you think is going to solve them? It’s up to us. I believe in perpetual motion. Do something. Do something! If you see something that needs to be changed, try changing it. If you see somebody who needs help, help them. People act like that’s saintly, but shouldn’t it be basic? Why isn’t it basic?

We’re a one-stop shop to help the poor. We try to give people whatever they need: food, clothes, furniture, dental, housing assistance, money to pay their bills. We’ve been open every day since this virus hit, but it seemed like the rest of the city pretty much closed. I don’t accept government funds, which means I’m free from some regulations. We were the only place left serving meals downtown. We had five or six hundred people lining up to eat, and what am I going to do? Stay at home because I’m afraid I might get sick? Send people away if they aren’t wearing a mask? Come on. These people barely had the luxury to worry about a virus. They were jobless. They were homeless. They had nothing to eat, and they weren’t getting their food stamps because the county had shut down. I promised them: “I will not close.” We served something like 8,000 meals that first week, and it’s gone on from there.

Some days, there are 200 people waiting to see me by the time I get in to work. Each one has an emergency. I open the doors and greet everyone as they come in. I ask their names and listen to their stories. A guy got laid off overnight at Mall of America, so now he’s out there with four kids waiting for something to eat. A Somali family is about to get evicted from their apartment, and they’re asking me to pay their landlord or else they have to move into a tent. We have a shelter across the street that houses 600 people, and more than 400 are kids. Every room is full. We call it transitional housing, but where are they supposed to go next? There’s no hope for people in this pandemic. The safety net has been obliterated.

I do walk-throughs of all the rooms, and the other day I went to check on a Hmong family, a single mom and her kids. She lost her job because her restaurant closed down. Then the day cares closed, so even if she could find another job, she can’t leave her kids alone. They’re all stuck in the apartment. They’ve got maybe 600 square feet. The kids are trying to learn English, but there’s nobody left to teach them. No more libraries. No more schools. No more free breakfasts and lunches during the school day, so now food is an issue for her, too.

These people fall into the cracks, and the cracks become canyons. So now I’m sitting with them, trying to communicate, trying to figure out what I can do to alleviate a little bit of their suffering. I played with the kids and did some of my silly dances. I gave them cereal, clothes and a few dollars. It was nothing. It was nowhere near sufficient. I could have sat in that room and spent a year trying to help, and it still might not be enough. But the whole point is to try. The outcome might not always be in our control, but we are responsible for the effort. You wouldn’t believe the power that a little kindness can have on people. It restores our humanity. These kids were so grateful. They were looking at these little cereal boxes and just glowing. They had so much joy. I walked out into the hallway and I almost started to cry.

I know about sadness. I come from a hard life, and maybe that’s why I was drawn to this. My father was a mean man. He’d tell me: “You’ll never amount to a hill of beans, Mary Jo.” He’d beat my mom all night and then demand his breakfast. She’d stand there bleeding, cooking his eggs. I went into a foster home for a while. I got depressed, addicted. I was 38 years old when I finally decided to start volunteering. All of our kids were in school at that point, and I had nothing to do. I was aimless. I felt lost in my own fear and sadness. My husband, Dick, he helped me understand: “Get outside of yourself. Make the world better because you’re in it.” I didn’t have a driver’s license. I’d never driven downtown. I got lost on my way to Catholic Charities, but I knew God was calling me.

See, I’m nobody that special. I don’t have much education. I don’t have big money. I just decided to start.

Dick was alongside me the whole time. He helped me build my organization, fundraise and recruit volunteers. I prayed a lot. I worked as hard as I prayed. Dick got a little mad at me because I never would take a salary, but eventually he let that be. Not many people have a marriage like that. Then the dementia hit him, and he was in a nursing home the last five years. I’d go up there most days to feed him and help him get dressed. They had 47 people die from the virus in that nursing home, and the staff started telling me I couldn’t come. I went anyway. I had to see him. They came into his room one day and yelled at me, and I raised my voice. I knew I couldn’t come back. I will always believe that Dick thought: “If Mary can’t come, I want out of here.” People are dying of loneliness. He only made it a few more weeks.

We had a small service. I had three priests, and they sang, and I was able to say a nice goodbye. But the emptiness when it ended — I don’t think anyone can imagine. We’d been together since we were 15. I felt sick. I couldn’t go back to the house. I was lost. I didn’t know where to go.

Some of the volunteers looked worried when they saw me. They said it was unusual. They thought I should take a few days off and rest my mind at home. I told them: “This is what might make me feel a little better.” We had people waiting in line, and they all had their needs. I went back to work.


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