Mary Jo Copeland bends to her knee, opens her arms and hugs several smiling children who run to greet her.
"Come here, baby," Copeland says as their mothers look on and clap their hands in approval. "These are my little kids." The women and children -- most of them Somali refugees escaping war in their homeland -- are among the thousands of families Copeland has sheltered through Sharing and Caring Hands, the faith-based nonprofit she founded in 1985 to assist Minneapolis' poorest families.
On Friday, the women and children cheered on Copeland at the nonprofit's shelter near Target Field as news spread that she'd been awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation's second-highest civilian honor. The medal will be presented by President Obama in a White House ceremony next Friday.
"I was overwhelmed and ... touched," said Copeland, who fought back tears when talking about the award. "I was really humbled. I think it's also a platform for me to be able to bring this to the country, to be able to make people realize we can't just ignore the poor, push them aside. It's a fact that in every single city, people are falling through the cracks through no fault of their own. And we need to address that."
For Copeland, 70, this is the second recognition of her lifetime of charitable work by a U.S. president. The Brooklyn Center resident also was the face of President George W. Bush's funding of faith-based initiatives in the early days of his first term.
The Citizens Medal was established in 1969 to recognize American citizens who have performed exemplary deeds of service for their fellow citizens. She is one of 13 recipients from around the nation chosen from 6,000 nominations, according to the White House.
Copeland is being recognized for providing food, shelter and clothing to people who come to Sharing and Caring Hands.
The charitable organization started out in a small storefront downtown and has grown into a campus consisting of three separate buildings worth $19 million. It spends over $350,000 a month on the needs of those seeking shelter, according to its website.
The shelter is staffed almost entirely by volunteers, and Copeland receives no salary for her work. As a show of humility, she's known for washing the feet of those who come to the shelter looking for assistance.
'A model for the nation'
Former U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, who helped forge the connection between the Bush White House and Copeland, calls her "the Mother Teresa of Minnesota."
"Sharing and Caring hands was a model, and still is a model, for the nation, and it was certainly held out as such," said the Minnesota Republican. "Every time I see Mary Jo wash the feet of a first-time visitor, I get a lump in my throat."
The mother of 12 children [six boys and six girls], Copeland started volunteer work shortly after her youngest child began school. A devout, lifelong Catholic, Copeland volunteered at Catholic Charities for a few years before establishing Sharing and Caring Hands.
One of the shelter's buildings, named Mary's Place (named after the Virgin Mary, not Copeland), houses some 92 residential units where the homeless can stay while they try to find permanent housing, employment and long-term health care. Close to 400 children and 150 adults live there, said Copeland.
Among them is Hayat Omar, 34, a Somali refugee who lives with her husband Mohammed Ali and their eight children. Omar's family has lived at the Sharing and Caring Hands shelter since June. In that time, she and her husband have found jobs, and they're about to move into permanent housing, she says.
Their 4-year-old son Ahmed Ahmed, who is disabled and can't walk, recently received a wheelchair through the help of Sharing and Caring Hands. Before arriving at the shelter, he was pushed around in a stroller by his parents, who couldn't afford a wheelchair for him.
Omar is still learning English, but she knows enough to express her thankfulness for the help she's received at Sharing and Caring Hands.
Rob Wills, 45, a manager at the shelter who's worked there nearly 15 years, says a high percentage of the needy who come to Sharing and Caring Hands are refugees and immigrants. But many are also battling financial problems because they've been hit with a health crisis or lost their jobs.
He says Copeland deeply empathizes with and works tirelessly for those who come to Sharing and Caring Hands. She's at the shelter nearly every day and takes a hands-on approach to helping -- handing out food, clothing and lots of hugs to the children.
"She's the most amazing person I've ever met," Wills said. "This award to me is a good pinnacle to her career."
Copeland expressed humility at the award and thanked God for giving her the strength to help the needy.
"I think they're finding hope here," Copeland said from one of her offices at the shelter. "I think they're finding they're not alone on their journey. There's a lot of depression, fear and anxiety. One day, they come here. And they rest their spirit and they can come to know they can get the help they need, and they do. They're really at peace and it's just a wonderful thing."
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