Mary Jo Copeland, founder and director of Sharing and Caring Hands, says she is humbled by her choice as a recipient of the Presidential Citizens Medal, one of the nation's highest civilian honors. Copeland will receive the award at the White House Friday for her charitable work providing food, shelter and other services to the poor.
Copeland joined All Things Considered to discuss her work and the award.
Mary Jo Copeland: I think it's a beautiful honor, it's a humble honor that I would be acknowledged for doing something that I've done - I've never been out much. I just pray and work. And all of a sudden someone calls you up and they know who you are. I guess I was grateful for the opportunity, too, to talk about the poor and what is really going on in our cities. I was humbled and I was grateful to God for that call. I really was. I still was a little taken by it, you would be too if anybody called you from the White House. At first I thought, "Wow!" You don't expect anything like that. I mean, awards are nice but the White House? Come on.
• Photos: A morning with Mary Jo Copeland
Tom Crann: You have a reputation for taking a real personal interest. Each morning, anyone new who comes in, you meet with them. You take a very hands-on approach here. Why is that aspect important to you?
Copeland: I think it's always been because I came down to help the poor. I can't just be sitting in my office like so many people that run places. As a director, you have to be a part of it. Touch the people, talk to the people, find out what you can do and then delegate it. When I see each person in that line I say, "What do you need?" and then they run the Social Security number. But I'm still there listening to that story and then having somebody else help them. But that's very important for a director of an organization because people work with you, not for you.
Crann: Do you see a time when you may have to step back a bit from that role and let somebody else handle that, maybe other staff members? Or dare I mention even retirement?
Copeland: I think when I rest, I'll rest in eternity. There's no such word as "retire" in my vocabulary. As far as stepping down, I don't think I ever will. I'll probably die in the bucket soaking feet. (laughs) In reality, if my health is as good as it is and God continues to bless me with that health and I can continue to keep the energy level up, I want to be able to stay until I go to Heaven. I mean, I'm trying to get there. I don't want to say I'm there.
I really want to stay here for as long as I can and be able to serve his people and be able to bring dignity to these people. When people feel love and not alone, they tend to come back to a place like that. So many hundreds of people, we're serving 800-900 people a day, three meals a day. I like to touch that and be a part of that. The volunteers and the people who give their time and money, I'm there for them as long as I can be.
Crann: You don't take a salary for your work.
Copeland: I've never taken a salary. I came down not wanting to take anything for my work there. My husband came with me about 12 years ago. He used to be at Rainbow Foods. He took a salary. We had to have a place to live. I've never wanted to. I've always told God that the money that came in there would go to the people. I don't feel as a director that I should be taking donors' money. I've never felt that.
Crann: And you also don't take government funds, right?
Copeland: Federal, state, United Way, nothing. I think because of the fact that I've always never wanted to go by those rules. There are rules and regulations with all of these places once you start taking money.
Also it sets me free to be that safety net. If someone needs a bus card, whatever they need. I do a lot of eyeglasses for the schools. The social workers call and say there are ten kids over here who don't have eyeglasses. I don't have to fill out paperwork saying why we're going to help this child. If somebody calls from the school and says the kids can't see, they need to have glasses. We don't need to go to a committee to decide why they need glasses. I do thousands of those a year. Same way with beds. If they're sleeping on the floor, give them a bed. All those rules are free when you're not with government and all those agencies.
Crann: The number I have for what it takes monthly to run what you do is about $400,000 per month.
Copeland: It's gone up to about $450,000.
Copeland: And it's private donations entirely?
Copeland: All private. People come in and they can see it, they tour it. It comes from businesses, law firms. I think people want to give to something where they can see their money work and it works there [Sharing and Caring Hands].
Crann: Do you see this work that you do as largely up to people like you who do it for whatever reason, or do you think the government has a hand here in doing some of this as well?
Copeland: Individuals like myself in different cities can see people instead of papers and get things done quicker. When George Bush was there he said to me if this building and all you built here was in committee it would have never been done. I really think it's going to take the private sector to do -- but not all of it. Again, the government has to step in here. They have to make some provisions for health, housing, even building big shelters in some of our cities where people are dying on the street.
Crann: They're not there yet, but we do hear plans to end homelessness, public plans. It's often in the news. What do we not know about homelessness that you wish we did?
Copeland: What I think people don't realize about homelessness is how down people get, how depressed people get, how people react to -- they don't want to come for help. I had a family come in the other day with three kids, a mother and dad, ashamed to be there. There's a side that --
Crann: A stigma?
Copeland: Yeah, it is. "We don't ask for help, Mary. We had to come." I'm glad I'm there to make them feel that they have hope. Hope is a funny virtue. I've always talked about hope. I'm going to tell the president, too, I hope I can. Hope isn't just a wish that things will get better. Hope is a promise that we do not -- individually and as a world, as a nation -- walk alone. We walk with people that care. We walk with a God that watches over all of us. Each one of us is spiritual in their own way. I'm a spiritual person, but we all are. We know that God will take care of it. We have to listen to that call and it is hard.
Another thing about homelessness people don't understand is when people go through things they sometimes get into drug problems, into drinking. There are a lot of mental health issues that come from that. There are so many things to be addressed in that that have to be taken care of. I see it when they come to the building. They have no peace, they're just a wreck. They're there a little while and the amount of atmosphere that can contribute to a person's peace and being a productive person is incredible.
Crann: The atmosphere of the people around them?
Copeland: Yeah. In other words, the atmosphere of being in a place. This is transitional housing. They have their own stove and refrigerators. It's like an apartment. I find the transformation so unbelievable. I do the intake. I see them two or three weeks later and, "I'm sleeping at night. I feel better. I get up in the morning. I'm not scared where I'm going to go." There's a peace in atmosphere that no one can take. I wish I could put these places all over the country and say, "Give them atmosphere and you'll see some productive people because they're not afraid anymore. They're full of peace. They're full of security and they're full of hope."
Crann: What would you like your mark to be in Minneapolis, your legacy?
Copeland: I want people to know how important it is that they make the world better because they're in it, because they reach to the person around them, no matter how small it might be. Whether it be taking a person to church or buy them groceries. There's all those things people can do. Meals on wheels. So many things. Please look within your own neighborhood what you can do to make a difference to bring the presence of God to people you meet. That's what I want to leave -- and the power of prayer. Take the time to pray no matter who you are, where you are. It doesn't have to do with religion, it has to do with a spiritual soul. To just take the time with your God to say, "What do you want me to do to make a difference while I'm here so when I go I make that difference?" That's what I want to tell the people. I hope my life and my life of faith has inspired other people to live that same life when I die.