(MintPress) – Dozens of Somali children gathered at the feet of Mary Jo Copeland, gazing up at her with hopeful eyes and genuine smiles.
Occasionally, a young one would rise to hug the 71-year-old woman, whispering an “I love you” while comforted in her embrace.
It was just another Thursday at Mary’s Place in Minneapolis, Minn., a transitional home founded by Copeland that offers apartments to nearly 200 men, women and children at any given time — just one service provided through her Christian organization, Sharing and Caring Hands.
To the children, Copeland is an angel — an angel that provides them with food, shelter and two $1 bills every Thursday afternoon.
On this Thursday afternoon, she’ll become known as an angel throughout the nation, as she accepts the Presidential Citizenship award for her decades of work operating her campus for the homeless.
Thirteen Presidential Citizenship Awards will be recognized in a White House ceremony, including one award dedicated to teachers who lost their lives in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. More than 6,000 people from throughout the country were nominated.
“It is my distinguished honor to award these individuals the 2012 Citizens Medal for their commitment to public service,” President Barack Obama said in a White House press release. “Their selflessness and courage inspire us all to look for opportunities to better serve our communities and our country.”
Through the award, she hopes to spread a motivating message throughout the nation — one that rids the political atmosphere of false pictures painted of the poor and focuses on delivering compassion and assistance.
“We put the poor in the background, we hide them away,” Copeland said in an interview with Mint Press News. “We talk about homeless and poverty once in awhile. It’s not once in awhile. It’s in every city in our nation and when we continue to say, ‘Well, they’re on welfare, they’re bums.’ No, they’re not. They’re there through no fault of their own.”
Sharing and Caring Hands
Mary’s Place is more than a facility for the homeless. It’s a three-building center filled not only with the essentials, but an abundance of compassion that fuels the desire for those who receive Copelands’ help to see the potential within themselves.
The campus consists of three buildings: the Sharing and Caring Center, Mary’s Place and the Children’s Center.
The first stop for those in need is typically the Sharing and Caring Center, where every person who walks in the door is greeted by Copeland. She listens to their stories, provides a dose of compassion, a plan for recovery — and always a smile.
And if she feels called to do so, she’ll wash their feet. She sees it not as an act of nobility worthy of praise, but a humble notion of service, resembling the work of her personal Savior. As she sees it: “A great leader is a great servant.”
Copeland’s charity began 30 years ago when she opened a small storefront shop in downtown Minneapolis. She had finished raising her 12 children — all of whom she had birthed — and felt called to help the poor.
And so she did.
Copeland’s contribution to Minneapolis has grown solely through private donations. As word has spread throughout the nearly 30 years since her humble beginnings, corporate donors, along with individuals, have invested in a program aimed at alleviating the poverty epidemic in the Twin Cities.
Now, Mary’s Place alone provides shelter for more than 500 people every night, a service that helped more than 200,000 people last year. Every year, it’s estimated that Sharing and Caring Hands provides more than 24,000 meals and gives away more than 375,000 pounds of food.
Copeland gives hope to the hopeless, and she wants her model to be spread throughout the nation.
“We need to address what we are going to do to make a difference,” she told Mint Press News. “And I think this award means a great deal from the standpoint that it will be able to give me an opportunity to bring this to the country, to say, ‘Hey, we have to look at what’s happening.’”
Changing the attitude toward the poor
More than 15 percent of Americans lived in poverty in 2010 — the highest it had been since 1993, according to the U.S. Census. By 2000, it was at 11.3 percent. When tallying the numbers for children living in poverty, the rates are even higher, with more than 16 million living below the poverty line.
It is an epidemic — yet one that’s not recognized as such.
The conversation surrounding the issue of poverty in the U.S. is one that’s riddled with outrage and cliche negative phrases — a heated topic that has even the most compassionate of conservatives focussing on abuse within the welfare system, rather than the issue of poverty itself.
For Copeland, there’s no room for derogatory phrases. In fact, it’s that attitude she says is causing more degradation for the poor, rather than assistance.
It’s that compassion that has led Copeland to create a nationally-acclaimed facility without any form of government assistance.
Social safety nets
Faced with the nationwide budget crisis, states have tapered back on spending for health and human services, despite a rise in need.
This is the gap in appropriation and demand that Copeland caters to, recognizing that the problem is not going to go away on its own.
“There’s so many things we can do to alleviate the tremendous debt that poverty is in our cities,” she said.
Copeland doesn’t take political sides, but understands that government isn’t always the answer. She sees a need for services like hers in every major city in the nation, as they allow needs to be addressed without red tape attached to services.
“Government is too big, there’s not the love and compassion in the government,” she said.
Copeland is calling for a revolution of sorts throughout the nation — not one sponsored by government, but by the grassroots efforts of people. It’s already taken hold in the Philippines, where the Minneapolis model has been applied.
“We’re all called to reach out and make a difference,” she said. “I’m just a woman who listened to the call of God.”