“Anything we can do for people, we do.” That’s how Mary Jo Copeland describes the mission of Sharing and Caring Hands, the unstoppable Minneapolis nonprofit she started in 1985. The seed money came from an award Copeland received for innovative work she had done at Catholic Charities, organizing parishes to volunteer one day a month to prepare, deliver, and serve hot lunches to the poor.
The $2,000 award allowed her to pursue her dream of an all-volunteer program that would escape the bureaucratic albatross that weighs down so many nonprofits. Her husband Dick Copeland, who is also the treasurer, had to sign the three-year lease for the storefront property where they first set up shop. “Honey, if this goes south,” Dick Copeland says he told his wife, “we’re on the hook for $36,000.” Mr. Copeland describes himself as the incredulous guy who says “What?!” whenever his wife (“the boss”) announces her newest plan.
Early on, he recalls, the men who came to Sharing and Caring Hands needed gloves to withstand the brutal Minnesota winter. The board told Mary Jo that they couldn’t afford gloves. The boss ordered them anyway and just as the bill for a little over $1,000 came due, “a guy walked in with a donation from his father’s estate” for the exact amount.
From a humble downtown storefront, Sharing and Caring Hands has grown into a charitable colossus with several buildings housing hundreds of homeless families, a dental clinic, and two medical clinics. The organization provides food, clothing, shower facilities, transportation, legal aid, employment, fellowship, daycare, tutoring, and more. Big but not bloated, Sharing and Caring Hands spends only about 6 percent of its revenue on administrative costs. Nor has Mary Jo Copeland lost perspective as she oversees this small empire of good works. Every morning and again in the afternoon, she makes up seven or eight pans to wash the feet of those in pain. “You can’t believe people walk on these feet, children too.” As she talks passionately about blisters and corns, she says it is for God as well that she performs this act of humility.
One secret to her success is that Mary Jo loathes red tape in all forms. At some charities, she exclaims, “If you need a pair of eyeglasses, it has to go to a committee.” For this reason, she accepts no government funding. “There’s no love or compassion in government. They spend too much money on task forces,” Copeland once told a Minnesota newspaper. “I want to be free to take private monies,” she said more recently. And she wants the money to go to those who need it. Mary Jo has harsh words for executives of charitable organizations who draw high salaries. She herself accepts no salary and says she saves money by being her own rainmaker. She does not go in for fancy fund raising with professional consultants and big costly affairs.
Yet she can raise money with the best of them—supporters say no wallet or checkbook is safe in her vicinity. And, reportedly, many of the parishes where she raises money do not welcome her to the pulpit during their own holiday drives. “God has blessed me. I’m a good public speaker,” Mary Jo says. Whether appearing before church groups or heads of corporations or at the National Prayer breakfast in Washington, D.C., she speaks simply: “No big words. I just put it out there. I tell a story. And people see the need.” And they respond. Asked about money for the $30 million orphanage and school she is working toward with help from the Target Corporation, she says, “I don’t worry about that. I just try to be prudent. I try to be prayerful. And I believe that God will provide for his people.”
This project, named “Gift of Mary,” is intended to restore order to the lives of children in the foster care system. “There are not enough foster homes,” she says. “There are not enough adoptive homes.”
One prominent inequity Mary Jo wants to redress is the separation of siblings who have become wards of the state. The orphanage will accommodate some 200 children in “family units” of ten with two parent figures and a college intern each. As with the families Sharing and Caring Hands puts up in fully furnished rent-free apartments, no one will sleep on the floor or find himself without some measure of privacy. And everyone’s feet will be washed.