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Some Heroes Gone

Soup KitchenAt this time of year we hear about memorials being held in more than 150 American cities for the people experiencing homelessness who died during the year. Equally sad is the loss of people who spent their lives helping. For the first person mentioned here, it’s necessary to go back a little farther to the fall of the previous year when a humble nun from the Daughters of Charity died in Albany, N.Y., at the age of 84. She was Sister Mary Rose McGeady, former president of Covenant House.

The organization’s current president and CEO, Kevin M. Ryan, took on the task of writing about his predecessor, calling her “our greatest leader and champion.” At the age of 19, she had started her career by working in a home for destitute and abandoned children. In 1990, her Covenant House assignment began with the difficult task of restoring the reputation and efficacy of an organization disgraced by inept management.

Sister Mary Rose spent 13 years as Covenant House president, starting new programs and persuading powerful secular leaders to see things her way, to the point where six countries served lost young people through crisis centers, outreach programs and long-term residences. By the time she died, Covenant House was affecting the lives of 57,000 children per year.

Ryan describes how Sister Mary Rose’s deathbed was surrounded by pictures of the kids she had helped, as well as letters from them. Ryan says:

She was the Mother Teresa of street children, a Holy tornado of determination and compassion. She lived and died every day with the successes and failures of our kids … and she saw God in the tired faces of beautiful, forgotten kids.

Because she was so good at dispensing love and respect, personally and through the charity she ran, thousands of children were able to thrive, and to learn what for many were extremely difficult skills — how to trust, how to accept care and kindness, how to respect and value themselves…. There can be no greater legacy of love.

January of 2013 was brutal, with news of the deaths of two major figures published on the same day, and then a third only two days later.

Carol Walter, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, died at the age of 53. Described as relentless, fearless, unwavering and “one of a kind,” she always stayed focused on the importance of getting people housed as soon as possible. Since her teen years, when she insisted on attending an alternative high school that gave her activism more scope, Walter had been tuned in to the rights of minority groups. After college she worked in New York City and acquired a crack cocaine habit, and then dealt with it by attending a rehab program. Anne M. Hamilton, writing for The Courant, says:

Back in Connecticut, Walter lived in a halfway house for a while, and worked at Columbus House in New Haven, then as associate executive director at the Shelter for the Homeless in Stamford. She became director of the Stewart B. McKinney Shelter in Hartford, where she dealt with the myriad of problems that cause and perpetuate homelessness.

Needless to say, the background of personal experience was of great value to Carol Walter’s interactions with street people. Professor Dennis Culhane wrote of her, “She was certainly one of the most effective and creative advocates in this country, whose loss will be felt for many years to come.”

In Port Orange, Fla., Sue Benton died at 67 after a long career of teaching Sunday School and collecting from fellow parishioners the items needed by people experiencing homelessness. The First United Methodist Church has a cold-weather shelter called Room at the Inn, where Benton made sure guests got more than rest and food. She began modestly by suggesting that parishioners bring back bars of soap and bottles of shampoo from hotels where they stayed on vacation. Eventually the collection of toiletries and hygiene items was so successful that a Daytona Beach shelter could also be supplied.

Another sad loss was the death of Ann Marie Tarinelli, the Connecticut woman who spent many years caring for people experiencing homelessness. She started a nonprofit foundation, recruited other volunteers, and collected clothing and other items that strangers would leave in bins outside her home. Food was the big donation item, and Ms. Tarinelli made home-cooked meals, then traveled on Sundays to parts of Bridgeport where the young and healthy feared to venture, and fed hundreds of hungry people. The cook, who lived to be 75, was especially known for her Thanksgiving dinners.

In March, we lost Dr. Daniel H. Dietrich, who was named Physician of the Year by the Nebraska Medical Association a dozen years ago. In 1988 he helped found a mobile medical clinic, an 18-foot motor home called the Hopemobile that served the disadvantaged and homeless people of the Omaha area. Dr. Dietrich’s area of expertise was in recruiting other health care professionals as volunteers.

Earlier this month, a memorial was held in Boulder, Colo., to remember not only the 15 homeless people who died there in the past year, but three activists who provided support and service — Rev. Deacon Donald Burt, Dr. Peg Rider and Bruce A. Enstad. Such events, expressing a community’s love for people who serve others, are beautiful and meaningful. But we look forward to the day when they are no longer even necessary.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Kids Lose a Mighty Advocate,” HuffingtonPost.com, 10/16/12
Source: “Carol Walter: A Relentless Advocate For Poor, Homeless In Connecticut ,” Courant.com, 01/14/13
Source: “Sue Benton had a passion for children, homeless,” News-JournalOnline.com, 01/14/13
Source: “Trumbull woman who fed the homeless dies,” CTPost.com, 01/16/13
Source: “Dr Daniel H. Dietrich,” FindaGrave.com, 03/30/13
Source: “Ceremony to mark Boulder County’s 2013 homeless deaths,” DailyCamera.com, 12/20/13
Image by Bill McChesney

 

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