Mary Ames was helping build a house in a northern Thailand village in 2004 — a replacement for a woman’s makeshift shelter made of cardboard and plastic.
“Do you feel sorry for me because I am poor?” the woman asked Ames.
“No,” Ames replied. “I have a small house that I like very much. I want you to have one, too.”
In her 60s and 70s, Ames — an Iowa native and mother of three — reinvented herself as volunteer extraordinaire in the Twin Cities. Her work with the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity took her to three continents. At insurer Medica, where she worked as a receptionist, she started a drive to donate stuffed bunnies that has spread to half a dozen other companies and yielded some 20,000 toys for children in need.
Ames died Oct. 18 from complications from a stroke. She was 85.
“She derived great satisfaction from helping others,” said her son, Joe, of Irvine, Calif. “She saw the world as a very optimistic place.”
Ames spent most of her life in small-town Iowa, a proud Irish-American who served corned beef and cabbage each St. Patrick’s Day. She put in stints as an elementary school teacher and at a furniture store in Forest City, but she saw her main role as a mother.
Ames had long helped out in organizing church events, but she became passionate about volunteering after guiding newly arrived Southeast Asian refugees during the 1980s. In later years, she would often talk about a Vietnamese father whom she helped land a job on an assembly line in a northern Iowa factory — only to reunite with him later and find him the factory manager.
Ames’ volunteering picked up in earnest when she moved to the Twin Cities in the mid-1980s, after her children left for college. Ames, who had become divorced, joined St. Richard’s Catholic Church in Richfield.
She started work in Medica’s sales and account management department, where she opened e-mails to co-workers with, “This is Grandma,” and collected time cards wearing a firefighter’s hat. She launched an annual tradition of dress-up and potluck for Halloween, when she donned a witch’s pointy hat and became “Scary Mary.”
“I don’t think I ever saw Mary have a bad day,” said former co-worker Brenda Denny. “If she did, you didn’t know it.”
In 1995, after lamenting what she saw as a vacuum of giving around Easter, she started asking co-workers to bring stuffed bunnies for poor children. In the early years, the drive produced a few dozen toys, which Ames collected at her desk. To Ames’ surprise, it grew across Medica departments and to companies such as Wells Fargo, Walgreens and others. On average, it collects 1,000 bunnies each year that go to area nonprofits such as People Serving People and Sharing and Caring Hands.
In the 1990s, Ames also started volunteering with Habitat for Humanity; she often said that every child needs “a kitchen table where they can do homework.” She organized builds and signed up volunteers after mass at St. Richard’s, hitting a record of 42 new volunteers one Sunday. She also threw a church talent show to raise money for the nonprofit.
After Hurricane Katrina, Ames joined a group of volunteers who traveled to Mobile, Ala., and spent a week setting up homes.
“She was a great worker,” said Habitat construction support associate Terry Barnes. “She had a lot of stamina.”
Ames also flew to Northern Ireland, Poland, Botswana and Thailand with Habitat. Ron and Gloria Greenwald of San Francisco remember her as a hard worker who also took time to play with children in a sand pile in Botswana.
When Joe Ames’ wife pointed out to her that she could probably visit foreign countries more cheaply if she didn’t travel with Habitat, Ames replied: “Oh, I wouldn’t feel right about that. I have to give back.”
Ames is also survived by her daughters Jean and Anne, six grandchildren and a great-grandson. Services have been held.
Ames left a sealed envelope for her children to open after her death. In it, a note said simply, “Keep on dancing.”