Donald Tillman and Joanna Wiborg found themselves in a “bad situation,” early last week, homeless with nowhere to go. The couple came to Mary’s Place in Minneapolis with their three children ages 12, 11 and 3, not knowing what to expect. They were nervous and the children were scared.
But the couple had never met Mary Jo Copeland.
“She took us in and made us feel right at home,” Tillman said. “It really helped us in a bad situation.” The children were happy and felt at home within minutes, Wiborg said.
Stories like this happen every day at Sharing and Caring Hands and Mary’s Place.
Copeland founded Sharing and Caring Hands in 1985 as a safety net for those who couldn’t get help from the government — those who fell through the cracks.
Today, the organization helps thousands of individuals and families with emergency needs for rent, utilities, health expenses, food, clothing, shoes, travel expenses, job costs and more.
Called to help others
On Feb. 15, Copeland will be honored by President Barack Obama with the Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation’s second-highest civilian honor, for her years of service to the community. She is among 13 recipients chosen from more than 6,000 nominations.
“It is my distinguished honor to award these individuals the 2012 Citizens Medal for their commitment to public service,” Obama said in a press release. “Their selflessness and courage inspire us all to look for opportunities to better serve our communities and our country.”
Copeland will travel to Washington, D.C., Feb. 14, and receive her medal from the president the next day. Her daughter Barb and family friend Father Cory Rohlfing, pastor of St. Jude of the Lake in Mahtomedi, will travel with her.
“I still haven’t taken it all in,” Copeland said. “When I got the call I was a bit overwhelmed, but yet very humbled because there are so many people in this world doing very dedicated things for our Lord, all over, in every city. I was very, very honored.”
Copeland has always felt called to help others. She and her husband Dick raised 12 children, but she knew she wanted to do even more.
“I knew that God was calling me beyond the family. The family has my love — I never worked — I just taught them how to love God and make the world better because they were in it,” she said. “I knew that that love had to go beyond that house. It was just a calling; it was there as they were growing up, and I knew. I didn’t know what, but I knew that I had to do the will of God.”
And, people like Tillman and Wiborg are happy that she answered that call.
“She’s very deserving of it [award], we’ve seen it just in the six days we’ve been here,” Tillman said.
Said Wiborg: “I’ve never met anybody like her in my entire life. She can touch the hearts of even the toughest people to get through to them and put a smile on their face.”
Copeland’s impact goes beyond helping those in need. She also has managed to turn people struggling financially into part of her vast army of staff and volunteers.
“There are no words to explain her. She’s not of this world because if she was, she couldn’t be doing all that she does,” said Melissa Hightower, office manager and volunteer coordinator at Sharing and Caring Hands. “I’ve been on both sides of the wall. Me and my children were here as clients and she took us in. I started volunteering, and a few months later she offered me a job.”