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Something About Mary

Mary McAnena's soup kitchen has served tens of thousands of meals and turned around countless lives.

October 05, 2000|LYNN O'DELL

Mary McAnena, 97, has been cooking for the homeless for more than 15 years. Her kitchen serves about 10,000 meals a year and has changed countless lives.

When Mary McAnena came face to face with the homeless, she knew exactly what to do--she went home and started cooking.

And Mary's Kitchen in Orange, which serves about 10,000 meals a year, was born. That was more than 15 years ago and McAnena, now 97, is still at it.

"My heart goes out to people and they deserve a chance in this life," said McAnena, who was born in Ireland.

Declining health has slowed her down only a little. She runs the program and works at the kitchen three or four days a week.

And when the Orange County Women Lawyers Assn. set out to find a recipient for its inaugural Marjorie Dickinson Woman of the Year Award, McAnena was a shoo-in. She received the award Tuesday at a luncheon in Orange.

"We wanted to find somebody whose life was being very well spent," said Marilyn Martin-Culver, a board member. She praised McAnena for her dedication as a mother, nurse and volunteer teacher, and for launching a program to feed the hungry at the age of 81.

The award is named after Marjorie Dickinson, who was slated to become president of the lawyers group in 1997. After she was diagnosed with cancer, she continued to practice law and work for the board throughout her illness. She died in 1996.

The association wanted to honor Dickinson's memory by recognizing a woman who is dedicated, compassionate and hard-working and has made significant contributions to the community despite life's challenges, Martin-Culver said.

"Margie, I'm told, was in intensive care and still taking phone calls from clients, doing board work and being a mom. Her challenge was her illness. I'm not sure if Mary perceived her age as a challenge, but it sure didn't stop her from living the life she envisioned," she said.

Leaving Holy Family School in Orange one day, McAnena met a homeless young woman using her fingers to eat pork and beans from a can. She took the woman in, gave her the keys to her home and cared for her for several weeks, trying to get her a job.

"After that, it was always on my mind that there must be more people out there. Then one of the teachers at the school took me to Hart Park [in Orange] where I saw a mother and her two little boys lying on the ground with a torn cover over their heads," said McAnena, who went home and made soup for them.

She used her money to buy food, cooking in two big pots her neighbors gave her, and turned her Old Towne home over to the volunteers who joined in her program, then called "Heart for the Homeless."

Food was trucked to W.O. Hart Park, where the hungry were fed for 10 years until their numbers--up to 200 a day--drew complaints from neighbors in the area. The program moved to leased space at 517 W. Struck Ave. and in 1995 a grant from St. Joseph Health System Foundation was used to buy the modular buildings, creating a permanent home for the program.

When it moved, the program was renamed "Mary's Kitchen."

"Mary is sincere, you can tell when you meet her. She's of Irish background and she can hold her own, she's not a wimp. But she has a heart of gold and these men love her," said a volunteer who wanted to be identified as "just Jack."

Volunteers serve breakfast and supper, and provide a bag lunch for 30 to 60 people a day, mostly men. Meals often consist of gourmet food donated by restaurants such as the Turnip Rose. Meals also are cooked using free food from Ralphs and other stores.

Contributions come in many forms. Proceeds from "Noise for the Needy," a benefit rock concert at Chapman University, enabled McAnena to put showers in the men's and women's bathrooms and add a commercial washer and dryer to the facility.

"We went to the concert and a band member with his hair all spiked up came over and hugged Mary and asked if she remembered him, saying, 'You used to see me in the park,' " said Gloria Suess, a longtime volunteer. Another time, organizers of an event sent a limousine to pick McAnena up. The driver, a young woman, asked the same question, "Do you remember me? You helped me and my baby," volunteer Joanne Cull said.

On her visit to the kitchen, Martin-Culver said she was "impressed and inspired" by McAnena, who tries to get people jobs and outfits them with clean clothes for job interviews.

"It's one thing to send a check and another to take on pro bono cases as Margie did or to be loving and kind to people in need [whom] the rest of society might not want to get close to, as Mary does," Martin-Culver said.

McAnena, she said, "has a good sense of humanity. She's seen the best and the worst and she still loves people."

For more information, call Mary's Kitchen: (714) 633-0444; Orange County Women Lawyers Assn.: (714) 549-1377.

To be considered for this column, please send information on the Orange County person being honored along with a photograph to Lynn O'Dell, Los Angeles Times Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626. (714) 283-5685.

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