September 6, 2013

Mary Jo Copeland barely graduated from high school and never attended college. Yet, in the past 30 years, the director of Minneapolis’ Sharing and Caring Hands has raised millions of dollars to assist thousands who needed a caring hand – without government or United Way funds.

Author Michelle Hinck first volunteered at the non-profit more than a decade ago. Observing Mary Jo serving meals to and washing the feet of strangers who needed a shower and clean clothes, she sensed that someone with such passion and purpose must have quite a story. She spent hours shadowing Mary Jo and meeting with her husband, Dick, to gather material for “Great Love: The Mary Jo Copeland Story.” First published in 2003, the revised biography was released this year, after Mary Jo received the prestigious Presidential Citizens Medal from President Obama.

“Great Love” recounts a a life filled with neglect, fear, compassion, and giving. Mary Jo was born in 1942, shortly before her father left for the war. His parents convinced her mother to move into their Minneapolis home, though they considered her a second-class, unworthy farm girl. Mary Jo’s grandmother and aunts were as doting on her as they were disparaging of her mother. They did their best to ensure mother and daughter formed no emotional attachment.

Her father returned from the war with an injury and an explosive temper. The threesome moved to a new home, where Mary Jo watched her father beat her mother daily. His dim view of his daughter was expressed by frequent verbal tirades and occasional physical assaults that haunt her today.

With the arrival of a baby boy, Mary Jo’s weary mother became neglectful. Mary Jo often wore dirty clothes and bathed in a filthy bathtub. Her mother once packed garbage in her lunch bag.

Terrified of her father, Mary Jo found solace in church and prayer. She yearned to do the will of God and planned to become a nun. However, at age 15, she met and fell for Dick Copeland at a high school dance. Despite family objections, they married after high school and had 12 children in quick succession.

Estranged from both sets of grandparents, for decades Mary Jo ran her household on a schedule that began at 5 a.m. and ended after dark. Though the children had chores, her time was consumed by providing the clean home and clothes and good meals she missed in her own childhood.

With Dick working long hours, she became reclusive, depressed and dependent on Valium but continued to seek guidance through prayer. She weaned herself off the Valium. With the children at school, she began to venture outside the home.

She spent three years as a volunteer at Catholic Charities. The experience was gratifying, frustrating, and educational. She discovered she has no patience for institutional bureaucracy and rules she views as a hindrance to doing God’s work. Though her intentions were good, her methods were unwelcome.

She left Catholic Charities and started the organization that runs by her rules. A self-described “loose cannon,” she acknowledges that not everyone likes what she does, particularly city officials with whom she has battled. Nevertheless, with limited paid staff and hundreds of volunteers, Mary Jo has raised more than $100 million in the past 30 years.

Currently operating out of two buildings adjacent to the Minnesota Twins stadium, Sharing and Caring Hands (SCH) serves an ever-changing population. Each year, volunteers (individuals and groups from scores of churches of all denominations) meet basic needs of thousands through free meals, shelter and showers. Donated eyeglasses, shoes, clothing, and backpacks are given to the needy. Professionals provide free medical and dental care. (www.sharingandcaringhands.org).

“Not everyone can do what Mary Jo does and build an entire campus of love, but everyone has something to share,” says Hinck, the author, who is donating book proceeds to SCH. She hopes that sharing Mary Jo’s story will inspire others to find ways to use their talents and skills to help others. “Everyone has something to give, and although we may never know the specific impact this could make for someone else, we can be sure that it will, indeed, make an impact,” she says.

Mary Jo’s early years instilled the empathy that makes her work so extraordinary. She understands the indignity of filth; the challenge of addiction; and the terror of abuse. “Getting out of your own pain and into someone else’s doesn’t take it away but it gives you peace,” she said in a follow-up conversation I had with her. “Instead of concentrating on the pain and hard times and suffering in your own life, you are concentrating on someone else to help them.”

God called her to this work, she said. “With the gifts that I had I think it would have been a horrible disappointment had I not done what I was called to do. When people don’t listen to what they need to do, they get depressed. Had I not listened I probably would have been a very depressed woman.” Just as helping kindred spirits has been salve for her still-raw wounds, mentoring a child or helping out at a nursing home would help others out of their depression, she says.

“I live with a lot of suffering, a lot of memories…but never once do I get up and not run to be grateful that I can make a difference in the life of someone else, that I can feel what they feel. It’s a gift from God,” she says. “It’s a privilege that is mine.”