Minnesota Miracle Worker

July 2, 2009 at 2:34 am 2 comments

Mary Jo Copeland  You might expect a woman with twelve children to have a patient, motherly air about her, so no shock there.  You could also assume plenty of energy and common sense as essential to having a household of fourteen run like a handcrafted Swiss watch.  What does amaze is the sheer force of the drive to make a difference that pushed a reclusive and hurting Mary Jo Copeland out the front door of her family home and down the path of entrepreneurial benefaction at the age of 38, just as her last child was starting school.  Looking back at her troubled childhood, the surprise factor grows.

Having spent her pre-school years in the tranquility of her grandmother’s home, Mary Jo was uprooted and replanted into a chaotic, emotionally abusive household when her mentally disturbed father returned from World War II.  A submissive child, she hid in dark corners and prayed for the physical violence between her parents to end.  Still, she couldn’t escape the oppression of living without structure or the drumbeat of the message that she had no worth.

“If children grow up being told that they are limited, then they certainly will be,” she says now.  But she also looks back with gratitude to a life of faith, learned from the Dominican sisters at her parochial school, as the life preserver that kept her afloat through the tumultuous times.  “God wants us to turn to Him in our suffering and brokenness, to be grateful to Him in our joy.”

But joy was elusive in those growing up years.  As a neglected elementary school student, Mary Jo was often deprived, and felt the anguish of being ostracized by her classmates; as an intelligent but shy teenager, she could sense the dysfunction of her home life and ached with appreciation when a sensitive priest helped her relocate to a foster family.  She found further peace and security in marriage to her high school sweetheart Dick, and in an efficient, consistent household routine.

Still, profound self-doubt and fear lingered.  Add to the mix the fatigue from five moves in five years; seven children by the age of 27 with five more to come in the next six years; 10-12 loads of laundry a day; a husband working fifty-hour weeks to support his growing family; overseeing household chores so demanding that paper plates were required to save precious time; and rejection by both her own family and her in-laws. 

When neighborhood children from troubled homes started to gather around their backyard picnic table, Mary Jo listened with empathy and gained strength through this home-based outreach.  Praying her way through the pain of her own past, she persevered – exhausted physically, wounded emotionally, and fighting melancholy.

The doctors thought Valium would be helpful, but they couldn’t know the full weight of despondency that rested on Mary Jo’s shoulders.  Even with tranquilizers, she scrambled desperately to bury her depression and keep from backsliding into self-destructive thoughts and behaviors.  When the Valium became a crutch she could no longer hobble through the day without, she committed to sweating out the withdrawal symptoms and facing her raw-edged emotions head-on, without chemical buffers.

With her husband’s help and support she made it through that difficult process.  “Dick is my Joseph,” she says with a smile, and her Joseph knew her heart well enough to see that the love welled up in it needed a broader outlet.  How better to encourage her emancipation than to buy her a new car and park it right in front of their little house?  Mary Jo slowly warmed to the idea of learning how to drive, and her husband gently persisted with suggestions that she should find a way to share herself with the world.  With Dick cajoling, “You’ve got more love in your heart than anyone I’ve ever known,” a hesitant Mary Jo took a position as a volunteer at a drop-in center for vagrants operated by a large charitable organization.   

While a faith-fueled determination was already evident in Mary Jo’s life, the experience of looking into the eyes of the hopeless tapped a reservoir of zeal within her that no one could have estimated.  Visitors to the Center came expecting only the usual cup of coffee, stale donut, and place to rest for a while, but Mary Jo set the bureaucratic boat to rocking when she began to act on her own personal philosophy:  Those who seek assistance have different stories, but identical hearts and needs for love and kindness.  Ask a person who isn’t accustomed to anyone caring about him how they are feeling, and you can often chip through the protective shell around that pain-hardened heart.  “Kindness is a conversion,” in Mary Jo’s words.

Two years into her tenure, this spunky newbie had mobilized an army of volunteers into a highly successful hot meal program.  Yet the constraints of institutional red tape and funder mandates left little room for the individualized meeting of needs.  Mary Jo chafed at the straightjacket of complex approval processes that sifted slowly through an impassive hierarchy.  “Where there’s hungry people, God said feed them and love them,” she reminded others, emphasizing that the needs of the lost and lonely were both physical and spiritual, but the bureaucracy cranked at a snail’s pace.

It is spring, 1985, when Mary Jo is recognized by a local television station as one of eleven outstanding volunteers of the year.  She took the small cash prize from that honor and set out to help the needy – on her own terms this time.  Backed by Dick’s personal guarantee, she rented a property in a dilapidated corner of downtown Minneapolis and up went the sign, SHARING AND CARING HANDS. “I’ll just open the doors, and see what they need, and I’ll help them,” she declared to her husband. 

Her $2200.00 prize allowed her to lease a small storefront and bought her the freedom to operate on the philosophy that God is good and wants to bring wholeness to our lives.  “He loves everyone, regardless of their past,” she told clients and visitors, and then humbly went about washing the calloused feet of the homeless and street-weary who came through the door.

Twenty-four years later, Sharing and Caring Hands has relocated, gone through two major renovations, and expanded to a multi-building facility serving the needs 20,000 people each month.  From its origins as a shoestring operation, the organization now spends over $300,000.00 a month on a full-range of services including a hot meal program; food shelves; temporary housing expense assistance; shower facilities; free clothing; travel expenses; basic furniture; communications assistance; a children’s activity center and teen center; dental and medical care; eyeglasses; legal services; and providing 92 sparkling-clean, fully-furnished apartment units with laundry facilities and play areas for homeless families – all on private donations, only 7 percent of which is spent on management and fundraising.

The road to realizing Mary Jo’s dream of bringing relief and love and dignity to poverty-stricken people was strewn with obstacles, from financing crises to fights with a bitterly antagonistic City Hall.  But Mary Jo’s commitment – her willingness to rise at 2:30 a.m. for four hours of prayer and worship and do everything from public speaking to scrubbing floors, to move beyond prayer to action – allowed God to use her as a mighty instrument of compassion.

Mary Jo says simply, “When Christ came, He came to serve not to be served.  Can we do less?”  And of those impediments obstructing the path along our way to serve?  “We are responsible for the effort, not the outcome.  The outcome is in God’s hands.

“Just do your best,” Mary Jo enjoins others.  And as a final bit of encouragement she adds, “I am an ordinary woman who had a terrible childhood.  If God works through me, He can work through anybody!  We are all called to do His Will.”

Learn more about Mary Jo and Sharing and Caring Hands at www.sharingandcaringhands.org.


Entry filed under: People of Faith and Courage. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jodi K  |  July 3, 2009 at 4:53 pm

    Beautiful article! It’s so inspirational to know the story behind Mary Jo. What an amazing servant!

    • 2. kirkhams  |  September 6, 2009 at 10:43 pm


      I really appreciate your taking the time to visit my web site and leave comments. In the midst of an all-too-imperfect world, we can never get too much in the way of inspirational examples; I am delighted that you found that Mary Jo’s story filled that need. Please do keep coming back and letting me know what you think.



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