by Carolyn Will

Mary Jo Copeland (photo by Carolyn Will)
Mary Jo Copeland (photo by Carolyn Will)

The Mary Jo Copeland biography, GREAT LOVE by Michelle Peterson Hinck, reads like a true rags-to-riches story.  Her life is the American dream in full living color if you measure riches in the number of hearts touched, mended and nurtured.

National honor

President Barack Obama last year awarded Mary Jo Copeland the President’s Citizen’s Medal for “her vision for stronger neighborhoods… her compassion for the poor and marginalized… for sparking hope in those who need it most.”

How it began

In 1985, Mary Jo Copeland sought to bring the joy and bounties of the kingdom of God to the poor and homeless in Minneapolis, Minnesota when she opened Sharing and Caring Hands in a small downtown storefront. During her previous volunteer work with Catholic Charities, Mary Jo, wife and mother of 12 children, found many broken and hopeless people in the community with unmet needs.  They needed much more than a referral and stale donuts. At Sharing and Caring Hands, Mary Jo focused on restoring their dignity and giving them hope. She looked at each person as one as if they were one of her own children, all of them God’s children.

Built an empire of charity

Over the past 30 years, Mary Jo has raised more than $100 million from private donors and has grown Sharing and Caring Hands into the largest independently- funded outreach for the poor in the country.

Sharing & Caring Hands three-building campus includes:

  • A 27,000-square-foot main building where volunteers serve 1000 hot meals a day; clients shop at a free clothing store, take showers and do laundry; doctors, dentists and nursing staff provide free care; a food shelf provides groceries; private interview rooms allow clients to meet with case workers.
  • An area dedicated for one of Mary Jo’s most renowned acts of kindness: washing the feet of the poor.  This occurs 1-2 times daily.
  •  A teen center and day care staffed with volunteers who care for the children while their parents seek help from Mary Jo.
  • A transitional shelter, named Mary’s Place after the Blessed Mother, houses more than 500 people (a recent count was 436 children and 140 adults) in its 92 family apartments. Residents of Mary’s Place stay up to six-months while they rest their spirits, look for permanent housing , gain job training, counseling and other vital support services while they recover financially.

Immigrants find a welcome embrace

Word traveled far beyond Minnesota state borders about the good work Mary Jo has done for the broken people arriving from every major U.S. city to Sharing & Caring Hands.  By the mid-2000’s Mary Jo began seeing homelessness stemming from across the globe. In 2006, Hmong families occupied more than half of the 92 units at Mary’s Place, and more recently immigrants began arriving from war-torn Somalia. Today, Minnesota has the largest Somali population in the United States.

Hearing “I love you,” for the first time

In the summer of 2012, a Somali immigrant named Diamond and her two children were among the sixty Somali families living at Mary’s Place. Diamond never knew her father, and her mother abandoned her when she was two years old. Diamond lived with an aunt in Kenya who never accepted her as part of the family because she was Somali. Diamond worked as a slave in the house until she eventually ran away.

Life continued to be hard, living on the streets, surviving beatings and rapes.

Eventually with the help of the United Nations, Diamond secured passage to the United States with her two children.  She arrived at Sharing and Caring Hands completely broken and hopeless.. Mary Jo had seen this kind of deep depression before, and had even survived her own depression at one time in her life. With the help of the nuns and other volunteers and counselors at Mary’s Place, Mary Jo helped restore Diamond’s heart with love and joy and hope.  “When Mary Jo told me she loved me, that was the first time I had heard anyone say that to me,” said Diamond.  “She saved my life.”

Meeting Diamond today, you would never detect the devastation and heartache she once knew.  When she enters a room, Diamond exudes a bright spirit and outgoing personality.  Given a new purpose, Diamond serves as a translator for the Somali residents at Mary’s Place.

These stories and more are included in Mary Jo Copeland’s revised biography, Great Love, by Michelle Peterson Hinck.   In Mary Jo’s own words in the book’s preface:  I have shared my story in hopes that it will help others to overcome adversity in their own lives and enable them to rise above their problems to make a difference in the lives of others.

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