Eighty-three-year-old Mary McAnena is the grandmother of Hart Park.
Every weekday at 2 p.m., she takes lunch to the 15 to 25 homeless people living in the park in the city of Orange. With money from her savings and pension, she buys food--or gets donations from markets--then prepares and serves it to the men and women at the picnic tables there.
Because McAnena tells them to eat all their vegetables, drink their milk and wash their plates, some call her grandmother. A few have said they've even gained weight eating her food.
"She reminds me of my grandma because she's always trying to get me to eat too much," said Pete Sellers, 24, who has been homeless off and on for three years, adding that he gets "all the vitamins in her meals."
McAnena was in the park the other afternoon ladling out vegetable beef soup and passing out cheese and tuna sandwiches when she spotted a newcomer in the group. Most of the men and one woman had come up to her after lunch to say thanks or offer a hug.
Don Delg, 39, a Vietnam veteran who had sat apart from the others, hung back and waited till they had left.
Delg, barefoot and disheveled, told McAnena, "You're the most wonderful person I've ever met." He said he had become discouraged lately, and he began to cry.
She reached out and hugged him. "Don't get discouraged," she said. "As long as I'm alive, you'll always have food, dear."
McAnena, who began taking food to the park in January, is modest about her efforts to help the homeless. She believes, she said, that she's simply doing what's necessary to help get "them back on their feet."
"They wouldn't need to be this way if we could just lift them up instead of putting them down," she said.
On Tuesday the men and women who live in the park will pay tribute to McAnena on her 84th birthday: They'll chip in to make her lunch. "I'm cooking. She's not going to have to do anything," said Jimmy Verdon, 26, who has been living in the park for the past three weeks.
Nothing comes easy for the homeless, Verdon said, and they appreciate her generosity.
Members of the Holy Family Catholic Church in Orange, where McAnena is a member, will bring a cake for the celebration.
Judy Gaspar, who coordinates religious education at the church, describes McAnena as a "humble lady" who attends Mass every morning and manages to help others even though she lives on a fixed income and doesn't drive.
McAnena, who lives nearby, said she gets by on a pension and savings accumulated from years of working as a nurse at Manhattan Hospital in New York City.
She began cooking and finding clothes for the people in the park after she saw three people huddled under a bridge trying to keep warm during the cold spell in January.
"I went out and collected blankets from friends," she said. "I had four blankets, and I gave them to them. After that, I thought: 'This is where I'm going to help. I'm going to try to get them anything they need.' "
Since then, McAnena has devoted weekdays to preparing a variety of soups, sandwiches, salads and desserts, which she takes to the park with the help of church friends who act as her chauffeurs.
McAnena often leaves enough food so that the homeless can eat dinner at night. During the recent cold spell, she said, she also brought them blankets, jackets and gloves.
McAnena said the homeless people tell her they came to California to escape the cold and look for work.
"There isn't a state in the country where they are not coming from," she said. "They're leaving the cold, thinking they can find jobs here.
"But we haven't got anything to give to them sometimes. And rents are high, and they have to pay a month in advance. All they need is a little help to get them back on their feet."
Family Helped Others
Helping others comes naturally to McAnena. Growing up in her native Ireland, she lived in a big house where her family always kept an extra bed for the poor. "We didn't know who they were. We just gave them food and lodging," she said. "That's always been on my mind."
McAnena believes helping others is her purpose in life. She persuades her friends and business owners to donate food and clothes with the argument that "too many things are wasted in this world."
"We throw away food in the big stores," she points out. "I asked the manager at (a local) store to keep vegetables they plan to throw out for my friends who need help. Sometimes I get apples and I take the bad part out and make apple sauce.
"There's so much good stuff that people could use that gets thrown away. When I get tomatoes that are going bad, I wash them and use them in my soup.
"We throw away enough food to feed a nation."
McAnena and her late husband, James, had retired to Northern Ireland more than 20 years ago. But about 10 years ago, after they made a trip to California to see a granddaughter graduate from high school, they decided to divide their time between children here and in New York.
Other Volunteer Work
They eventually settled in Orange, where they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 1979. James McAnena died six months later.
Mary McAnena also did volunteer work for a Catholic education program for five years.
She wants to continue feeding and clothing the poor for as long as "God leaves me my health."
As McAnena was saying goodby to Delg, the barefoot Vietnam veteran, in the park the other afternoon, she offered him some second-hand suits she had brought with her. He declined. She decided, however, that she would bring at least a jacket on one of her next visits. Socks for sure.
"I spend what I have to help others," McAnena said. "I don't need worldly things as long as I have a bed to sleep in. . . . We came into this world with nothing and we're going to leave it with nothing."