She sits with her head slightly bowed, ankles crossed, her hands folded loosely in her lap, but despite her passive air Copeland has a powerful, charismatic personality, and before she'll answer any questions, she first wants to tell me the Mary Jo story in its entirety. Copeland makes good use of her past. At most public meetings, she will tell a version of her story, and like an actor at the end of a long run who speaks her lines as if they were her own, Copeland makes it sound fresh every time.
Born Mary Jo Holtby, Copeland spent her first six years with her affluent grandparents, who, according to Dick, ''kept her like a china doll.'' When her brother, John, was born, Mary Jo moved back in with her mother, a hairdresser, and her father, a Korean War veteran, who Copeland says beat her mother and verbally abused little Mary Jo. Their house was filthy, she says, and her mother would go to the bingo hall and play for food. Traumatized, Mary Jo would sit huddled next to a statuette of the Virgin Mary. She says that sometimes she slept in her own urine, that she was unpopular with other kids and that she got bad grades, but thanks to the nuns at her elementary school, she found salvation in prayer.
Copeland recalls the feeling of saying the Baltimore Catechism as ''almost like breathing oxygen.'' At a very young age she realized she wanted to be a nun. ''I'll be a saint,'' she remembers saying to herself. ''I'll please God.'' But then, as a high-school sophomore, she met Dick Copeland at a sock hop. Despite both of their parents' disapproval, they married shortly after Mary Jo graduated. Dick worked as a buyer for a grocery chain; Mary Jo raised their 12 children -- 6 boys and 6 girls. By the time her youngest was school age, Copeland started volunteering at Catholic Charities, which today she publicly takes to task for miring her in ''paperwork'' and ''bureaucracy'' to the point where she felt compelled to hand out food and clothes from the trunk of her car. Then in 1985, she received a $2,200 grant from a local television station, and Sharing and Caring Hands was born.
The Copelands have built Sharing and Caring Hands from a storefront operation into an elaborate web of social services. Since its inception, Sharing and Caring has brought in nearly $50 million in donations, largely from small individual donors, but also from companies like the Target Corporation. Other than 14 paid staff members (Dick draws a salary; Mary Jo does not), Sharing and Caring Hands is run entirely by volunteers, and the organization has never taken any state, federal or even United Way financing.
Sharing and Caring also runs on prayer. Every day, Copeland leads group and individual prayers to God and the Virgin Mary, and she prays with every family she admits into Mary's Place. During my first visit, I watch Copeland gather up an incoming family -- a ghostly man, a sobbing woman and their three children walleyed with confusion. She hugs the children, calms down the woman, explains the rules of Mary's Place, then asks them all to join hands in prayer. Afterward, when one of her assistants appears, Copeland says, ''You get them a cross; I'll get them some money.''
This mixture of faith and entrepreneurial spirit has made her a favorite among powerful men. Representative Jim Ramstad of Minnesota calls her ''America's Mother Teresa.'' Tom Lowe, the chairman of Lyman Lumber, publicly pledged $1 million to Gift of Mary, not because he believes in the idea of orphanages, but because he believes in Mary Jo. ''Good work will be done,'' he says. During his campaign, George W. Bush visited Sharing and Caring Hands, where he prayed with Copeland. At the Republican National Convention, Bush used her ministry as an example of the kind of work he claims government can't do. In February 2001, Copeland spoke at the president's first National Prayer Breakfast. After Bush's campaign stop, a reporter asked Copeland if she was going to vote for him, but she played it coy. Even though she welcomes the president's support, she has never publicly endorsed a candidate. ''I don't want anybody to use me as a political backdrop,'' she says.
Copeland has her detractors. Charities are typically built around causes, not personalities, and some advocates are put off by how much attention Copeland gets. Sharing and Caring has also drawn fire for not adequately documenting all the cash it dispenses. Harsher critics say that Copeland's stopgap approach perpetuates poverty by meeting short-term needs but ignoring systemic problems, while others point to the arbitrary intake policy at Mary's Place, which in fact is no policy at all. (Copeland uses what she calls her ''discernment,'' which for single men often means no admission.)
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But the criticisms never stick. This, in large part, has to do with feet.
Every day, twice a day, Copeland washes the feet of the homeless. After doing intake for the shelter, she heads back into the main room, where seven men are soaking their feet in plastic tubs. Copeland puts on latex gloves, gets down on a floral-print garden kneeler and starts ministering to Tom Lynch. Standing at Copeland's side is a volunteer named Little John, who squirts hydrocortisone cream into the palm of her hand. Lynch, who is shaking, has been coming to Sharing and Caring Hands since the late 80's, and Copeland has seen both man and feet go through their ups and downs. Copeland rubs Lynch's calluses, massages his ankles and carefully works the ointment between his toes.
Doing feet has become Copeland's trademark, an evergreen story in the local press, and I come to the moment wary of theater. But for an act this physically and spiritually loaded, I find it surprisingly mundane, like the warm, distant care you find in a good hospital. Copeland attends to each man in turn, sometimes taking off her gloves to clip toenails, listening to complaints, sharing in gossip. ''I need a job like a dead man needs a casket,'' one man says. Another man's sneakers are shot, so Copeland calls out to Dick to bring him a fresh pair. ''Better make it an 11,'' she hollers, then turns to the man and says, as matter-of-factly as if they were at Foot Locker, ''They run a little small.''
As Copeland tries to find a place to build her orphanage, she invites me to her first meeting with Pat Awada, the mayor of Eagan, and Peggy Carlson, a councilwoman. Copeland needs to raise $30 million to build Gift of Mary, and an additional $30 million for the endowment. In the current economic climate, when all charities are suffering, it will be no easy task. Yet she pitches Gift of Mary with complete confidence. ''Don't think about the money,'' she tells them, when the issue of financing comes up. ''The money is the least of our worries. Sixty million dollars. What is that? It's nothing. Money is paper.''
She then tells a story about Target's C.E.O., Bob Ulrich. While watching Copeland do feet, Ulrich asked what he could do. She asked him for $3 million for Sharing and Caring Hands. Ulrich said he couldn't give $3 million, but he'd give her $1 million. When Target recently offered $1.5 million to help with Gift of Mary, Copeland told Ulrich that Target would not get its name on the children's home. ''You can't ever put Target in front of the Blessed Mother,'' she told him. ''I appreciate the attorneys, but I run the show.''
In her more politic moments, Copeland calls Gift of Mary a ''children's home'' but she is also unashamed of the Dickensian imagery the word ''orphanage'' evokes. (In fact, the true orphan is more the stuff of fiction than history. Even late-19th-century orphanages weren't filled exclusively with children who had lost both parents; many were children whose parents or families, for whatever reason, could not fulfill their responsibilities.) While Copeland shows compassion for the chronically homeless and the working poor, she can be unsparing in her judgment of them as parents. The foster-care system has strict laws about terminating parental rights -- extreme poverty, mental illness or even drug addiction aren't necessarily enough -- but Copeland says that some of the kids who live at Mary's Place belong in a children's home simply because their moms and dads are unfit. ''They are orphans,'' she says. ''They don't have parents. Bottom line.''
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Copeland is not alone in wanting to find alternatives to foster care. In the past four years, residential academies, which serve academically motivated but impoverished or neglected teenagers, have opened in Washington, D.C., Minnesota, Maryland and California, with 12 more in the works across the country. Like charter schools, residential academies bill themselves as private alternatives to a failing public trust, in this case, foster care. Overwhelmed by the 80's crack epidemic, the system has not fully recovered. There are now 588,000 children in foster care, more than double the number in 1985, and despite recent reforms there are still issues of children bouncing from foster home to foster home before ''aging out.'' In many states, courts appoint special advocates to ensure that children's rights are being protected.
Copeland's vision for Gift of Mary is motivated by personal experience rather than by public policy research. The facility will have a K-12 private school, a community center and ball fields, but Copeland is less interested in education than in providing safety, structure and love -- and teaching the power of prayer. Children will live in one of 20 group homes, each managed by a specially trained married couple and their live-in assistant. The most controversial aspect of her plan -- and the one that most strongly differentiates her facility from residential academies -- is that Gift of Mary will house children as young as 4. And while foster care strives to place children in families, Copeland envisions providing long-term care. Ostensibly a child could spend her entire childhood at Gift of Mary.
Copeland's opponents say that children under 8 don't fare well in either institutional settings or long-term care. Yet despite resistance from county child-protective-service workers, negative editorials in the local press and opposition from groups like the North American Council on Adoptable Children, the Minnesota chapter of the Children's Defense Fund and the Child Welfare League of America, Copeland says it is her critics who are out of touch with the true need. ''Either they don't want to understand it,'' she says, ''or they can't.'' Copeland even expresses sympathy for the opposition, once telling me that she prays for them. ''Faith is a gift,'' she says. ''Many people don't want it.''
''I don't know if you've noticed it yet, but she has a huge ego,'' says Tom Lowe, to date the largest private Gift of Mary donor. During a public meeting on whether one Minnesota community, Chaska, would allow the orphanage, 75 mostly middle- to upper-middle-class landowners expressed their concern about property values, road assessments and the safety of their children. Instead of reassuring them, Copeland tried to bowl them over with faith. ''This is the community God wants it in,'' she said. At one point, when a woman asked Copeland to hear her out, Copeland grew short. ''I can't listen to you,'' she said. ''I have to listen to God.''
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When I ask Copeland why she isn't more diplomatic, she says: ''I don't mean to sound presumptuous, but I never really was a part of this world. I belonged to God. Belonging to the world didn't mean anything to me.'' I ask her if she has visions or conversations with God, but she waves me off. For Copeland, everything comes down to good works. ''When I think about God in my life, I want to be a saint,'' she says, adding, ''It's not time that makes a saint; it's how you live.''
In his 1949 essay ''Reflections on Gandhi,'' George Orwell said that ''saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.'' Copeland can be infuriating, but other than occasional indulgences like her white Lincoln (the vanity plates read PRAYNOW), it seems that Copeland gives back far more than she takes.
One Thursday evening, I follow her over to Mary's Place to witness a weekly ritual her husband teasingly calls ''The Mary Jo Show.'' Copeland slumps with fatigue on the way over, but when she enters the rotunda at Mary's Place she snaps into song: ''If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands.'' There are about 200 mostly African-American kids sitting on the spotless linoleum floor. Red paper hearts and sparkly snowflakes hang from the ceiling. Parents and teenagers sit on the fringe, a scant few joining in the fun. ''If you're happy and you know it, praise the Lord,'' Copeland sings. ''Praise the Lord!'' a chorus of kids shouts back.
''This place is a gift,'' Copeland says for the benefit of the new families there. She reminds them that they don't have to pay for rent or lights or food, that this is an opportunity to ''rest the spirit.'' She says there are rules, and consequences if the rules are broken. ''I'll start doing room checks, and then what will happen?'' she asks. Some of the kids who have been here for a while smile in anticipation. ''Smackdown!'' Copeland hollers, and the kids start to laugh. Copeland then gets serious and tells them that if they cooperate, Mary's Place can work wonders. ''The kids never want to leave,'' she says. ''I don't want you to leave, either. Because I love you.''
Then Copeland asks the kids whom they prayed for this week. Almost every child says Mary Jo, and each time Copeland gets a prayer she acts a little silly. ''I've got so many prayers I think I'm going to fall on the floor,'' she says, stiffening up and walking like a zombie. When Colin, a volunteer at Mary's Place, gets a few prayers, Copeland teases him that she has more. The final tally: Mary Jo, 15; Colin, 3. Jesus gets 1.
Later, the children line up for Mary Jo. A silver boom box plays ''He's Got the Whole World in His Hands.'' A volunteer stands at Copeland's side holding a brick of dollar bills thicker than a phone book. Copeland gives each child a hug, chats briefly, then dispenses $2. One little girl is so excited to touch Mary Jo that she looks as if she is about to burst. In fact, many of the kids seem less interested in the cash than in the hug. Copeland is ecstatic, and despite the strange assembly-line setup, she seems to take joy in each child. It's one of her most powerful gifts, an ability to make you feel as if you are the center of her universe, and even though the moment is theatrical, it doesn't feel like an act.
The Copelands were optimistic going into the approval process in Eagan thanks in part to the open support of the mayor. On the night of the final vote, the speakers in support of Copeland included Sharing and Caring volunteers; Joe Senser, a former Minnesota Vikings tight end, who is an alumnus of the Milton Hershey School, a Pennsylvania orphanage; and a woman who said she flew in from Seattle to urge the council to vote yes. During the public testimony, Copeland mouthed the rosary. The opposition was equally present. Foster-care experts testified that Copeland's proposal was a ''solution looking for a problem.'' It was a tense night. When one resident said that people move to Eagan to be away from the inner city, a woman shouted, ''Racist pig!'' Later, an African-American activist called Gift of Mary a ''plantation.'' At the end of the public testimony, Copeland delivered her rebuttal. She dismissed the foster-care experts by saying she had worked with children for 20 years. ''If anyone knows what a child needs, it's Mary Jo Copeland.'' As for the racial issue, Copeland said, ''God does not know color; he does not know culture; he made souls.''
Then her voice started to tremble. ''I prayed really hard last night,'' Copeland said, bowing her head. Her hands were clasped in front of her, and suddenly she sounded like a little girl. ''I prayed the rosary all night. Mary will hear us. Mary, please say yes.''
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After Copeland sat down, the council members held a brief discussion before explaining their thinking behind how they intended to vote. With the exception of one councilwoman, Meg Tilley, the numbers were in Copeland's favor. Mayor Awada went last, and when she said offhandedly that the proposal would pass, Copeland grew emotional. ''Don't cry, Mary Jo,'' one council member said, pouting at Copeland.
''Please don't cry,'' Awada said.
Copeland stood up and moved toward the dais as if she were rushing up to give her acceptance speech before receiving the award. She was on the verge of tears, but this time it was more joyous than strategic. She thanked God for hearing her prayers and said that everyone in Eagan will be blessed. She said this truly was the night the Lord had made. But then she pulled back.
''God bless all of you,'' she said. ''Even you, Meg. I still like you.'' The audience laughed; the tension evaporated. Up on the dais, Copeland's supporters on the City Council tried not to look too amused. Meanwhile, Tilley smiled a wry smile, then put her hands together and slowly, begrudgingly, applauded Mary Jo Copeland for an irresistible performance.
Source : http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/21/magazine/she-walks-through-walls.html3280