Charleszetta "Mother" Waddles, a self-educated mother of 10 who rose from poverty to found one of Detroit's most respected charities, died at home Thursday. She was 88.
She was the founder of Mother Waddles Perpetual Mission, an independent church that has provided food, clothing, furniture and other basic services to Detroit's indigent for five decades.
During the 1967 Detroit riot, she distributed food to residents who had not eaten in days. Her trucks bearing donated clothing and other necessities were among the few permitted safe passage through the riot-torn inner-city streets.
The eldest of seven children, Waddles was profoundly influenced by the experiences of her father, a successful St. Louis barber. His fortunes changed overnight when he unknowingly gave a haircut to a customer with impetigo, a contagious skin disease, and spread the condition to other clients who were members of his church congregation. He became an outcast, shunned by the congregation that had been central to his life, and was ruined financially. He died nearly penniless when Waddles was 12. She never forgot the heartlessness that ground him down.
When he died, she went to work full time as a housemaid. At 14, she married for the first time, but was widowed five years later.
In 1936, when she was 24, Waddles remarried and moved to Detroit, but eventually left her second husband because of his lack of ambition. She got by on welfare and street smarts, supplementing the meager government support payments by selling barbecued meat from tubs in front of her house.
When a girlfriend was threatened with the loss of her home, Waddles and her family moved into her unfinished basement as tenants. That saving act gave Waddles a wider vision.
She began holding prayer meetings at her house in the late 1940s, spreading the message that everyone, no matter how poor, could help someone less fortunate, even if it meant donating a single can of food. She became an ordained minister in the First Pentecostal Church and later the International Assn. of Universal Truth.
With the help of her third husband, Payton Waddles, she opened the Helping Hand Restaurant on the edge of Detroit's skid row in 1950. Scrounging for food scraps from markets and free rent, she began to offer simple but nourishing meals for 35 cents, or free to those who had no money. She was a one-woman charity band, cooking the meals and washing the dishes by herself.
Eventually, she was joined by scores of volunteers. Several years after opening the restaurant, she opened her church, Mother Waddles Perpetual Mission, to provide food, emergency financial aid and furniture. Over the years, it sprouted a health clinic and a variety of self-help programs, from job placement and tutoring services to classes in typing, dressmaking and machine operating.
In recent years, Waddles expanded into the used car business, obtaining donated cars for poor families.
The charity has suffered a series of setbacks, including two fires and financial problems that resulted in eviction for nonpayment of rent and utility shut-offs for unpaid bills. The car donation program led to a lawsuit and a boat donation program lost thousands of dollars, but no allegations of wrongdoing were lodged.
Waddles remained unfazed by the difficulties. "We are," she once told a Reader's Digest interviewer, "the most unorganized, successful operation in the world."
She was the author of several books, including two soul food cookbooks that have sold more than 85,000 copies since 1959. She turned all the proceeds from the books over to her church.
A half century after she started her soup kitchen, the "miracle meals" are still only 35 cents.
"There, but for the grace of God, goes me," Waddles once said, explaining her devotion to Detroit's downtrodden. "You can't give up on people."