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Classic Woman Awards 2015

Meet five amazing women who represent the best in American caring and giving.

Written by Sally Finder Weepie
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Mary K. Hoodhood

Kids’ Food Basket

Grand Rapids, Michigan

When a little girl from your neighborhood school is found digging through the garbage for food to take home for supper, the problem of childhood hunger in America gets real—really fast.

“I had to do something,” Mary K. Hoodhood says.

She met with the principal at the Grand Rapids, Michigan, elementary school—and got some more bad news: Melony, the girl digging in the trash, wasn’t alone. Dozens of her schoolmates also could not count on having an evening meal.

Mary K. immediately went to the head of the local soup kitchen where she worked and pitched a plan for a kids’ sack supper program. “They said no. There was no money. They couldn’t support it,” Mary K. says. “But I couldn’t sleep thinking about those hungry kids.”

She went back the next day. “Just let me try it,” she insisted. “I know I can raise the money.”

They did, and during Thanksgiving week of 2001, Mary K. and her little band of quickly recruited volunteers sent 125 kids at Straight Elementary home with food for supper. “By the end of the year, we were feeding 180 kids,” Mary K. says. She left the soup kitchen to devote all her time to growing the sack supper program.

Grow it she did. Kids’ Food Basket, the state’s largest childhood anti-hunger program, now provides an evening meal to 7,000 kids from more than 35 schools in Grand Rapids, Muskegon, and Holland, Michigan. Since its inception, about one million sack suppers have been served.

“So my lesson is don’t ever take no for an answer when it can make a difference in someone’s life,” Mary K. says

It’s hard to say no to Mary K. This dynamo has been all about helping others since she was a kid. Her first good deed was going with her dad to deliver sleds to girls at a reformatory at Christmastime. As an adult, she spent more than 20 years with God’s Kitchen. And since 1980, she has done it all from a wheelchair. Mary K. sustained neck and spinal cord injuries in a car crash that left her a quadriplegic at age 27. “After I was injured, I had a lot of time to think,” she says. “I decided that I would not let my disability deter me or define me.”

A month after she was released from the hospital, she was volunteering—and convincing others to help too. She’s recruited an army of volunteers—250 community members give of their time each day to raise funds, pack meals, and deliver suppers to pickup points.

“The thing that makes me most proud is that 33 percent of the work is done by people under the age of 18. And 78 percent of kids at the schools we serve have had a chance to volunteer,” she says. “They’re helping themselves and their community.”

They’re also following the example of a leader who isn’t about to just lament the world’s problems. “This isn’t rocket science,” Mary K. says. “We can talk about the problem of childhood hunger or we can make a sandwich and feed a kid.”