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CSJ Associate Mary Jane Smith: By Feeding the Hungry Mary Jane Puts Her Faith into Action for God's Children
In the following story, CSJ Associate Mary Jane Smith is interviewed by Paul Grondahl, reporter for the Albany Times Union (Sunday, April 24, 2010). Mary Jane, a long-time member of the CSJ Associate Program, coordinates the food pantry at St. Luke’s Church in Schenectady where she also serves as a Sunday school teacher, Eucharistic minister and president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Mary Jane, age 72, has eight children, 13 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren. A lifelong Schenectady resident, she and her family were members of St. Columba’s Parish until it closed four decades ago when they joined St. Luke’s.
When did you first get involved in volunteer work?
We were renting a house on Albany Street in 1965 and had just come back from the funeral home, making arrangements for my father’s service when we found our house on fire. We lost absolutely everything and had no insurance. I was pregnant with my sixth child. A man from the St Vincent de Paul Society at St. Columba’s came to see us and gave us food vouchers. That made all the difference for us. I wanted to help others after that.
How much has demand risen at your food pantry?
Last year, we provided 76,000 meals to more than 2,000 families, which is a 60 percent increase from 2008. We’re seeing 65 new families each month on average. It really surprised us when we started seeing more and senior citizens. It’s really hard for many people right now, and some tell me they’re living out of their cars, or they’ve now got three generations living under the same roof, pooling their resources just to survive.
How do you handle more and more people in need?
Father (Rev. Dominic Isopo, St. Luke’s pastor) always says “Don’t turn anybody away.” We also don’t just hand them a bag of food. We give them consumer choice and treat them with dignity. It’s very humbling when people come into my office and pour their hearts out. If they’ve got a long way to walk and can’t carry the groceries, we sometimes also give them a ride home.”
Does feeding the hungry strengthen your faith?
“It does. I believe we see the face of Jesus in everybody. It’s very fulfilling work. I receive a small stipend, and I’m paid for 15 hours a week, but it usually turns into 40 hours. We stay open as long as it takes to serve everyone.”
What’s your personal connection to the building where your program is based?
Our food pantry is in the basement of a two-family house next to the church that the parish owns. Back in the 1980s, our family had been living in an apartment complex, and our rent went up. We had five boys left at home, and we were looking for new housing. One of the nuns said she’d pray for us. They needed a maintenance man at St. Luke’s, and my husband, Bill, took the job; so we lived in the house on 1243 State Street for more than 10 years. It’s one of those strange things that I’m working in the house where I used to live. It feels like I’ve come full-circle and that I’m home, where I was meant to be.
See the video!
Videographer Charles Lezette of Scotia arranged with Mary Jane to spend time at the St. Luke’s Food Pantry. He then submitted a three-minute video, “No One Should Go Hungry,” to a nationwide Tyson Foods contest. Lezette won and so did the community—in the form of 15 tons of frozen chicken! With so much, Mary Jane said, “We store it at the Regional Food Bank and share it with three other food pantries in Schenectady.”
To watch the video, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFLbtNAhxOM.
(The article originally appeared in The Times Union on April 24, 2010 and is reprinted with the permission of Paul Grondahl.)