WASHINGTON — Mary Jo Copeland, the 70-year-old founder of Sharing and Caring Hands, spends most mornings in prayer, then at her shelter helping Minneapolis’ poor and homeless get food, or beds, or glasses or bus passes, or whatever else they might need that they wouldn’t otherwise have the means to afford.
Fridays are normally Copeland’s day off. She spent this one at the White House, receiving the Citizens Medal, one of the highest civilian honors in the United States, from President Barack Obama.
Obama honored Copeland and her fellow medal winners in an East Room ceremony Friday morning, inviting each on stage for a handshake, a hug and a photo. When it was Copeland’s turn, Obama draped his arm over her shoulder while a soldier read her citation.
“Driven by her faith and a fierce commitment to her community, Mary Jo Copeland has spent more than a quarter-century lifting up the underserved,” he said. “Alongside her husband, she grew Sharing and Caring Hands from a small storefront operation in downtown Minneapolis into a charity that provides thousands of men, women and children the chance to live in health and dignity.”
That’s when Copeland, thinking of the poor and “what God’s accomplished in me,” began to cry. Obama looked down at her and briefly rested his chin on the top of her head.
“Her unyielding vision for stronger neighborhoods has inspired people nationwide, and her compassion for the poor and the marginalized speaks to the depth of the human spirit,” the citation continued. “The United States honors Mary Jo Copeland for sparking hope in those who need it most.”
Obama handed her the medal and the pair smiled, Copeland through tears, for a photo. Obama hugged her, and Copeland waved as she walked down the steps to her front-row seat.
“It was an emotional moment for me to realize that the President of the United States has acknowledged the work,” Copeland said in an interview. “It’s just very humbling to me, very touching to me, and I just thought of all the poor and all the people that I‘m always with, and it just was a very beautiful thing.”
17 medals awarded
Copeland has been to the White House to accept awards before — she was one of the Caring Institute’s ” Most Caring People in America” in 1990. She’d held audiences with presidents, too: George W. Bush toured Sharing and Caring Hands and mentioned her in a speech during his first presidential campaign, and he was in the crowd when she spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2001.
But Copeland said she was shocked when the White House called to tell her she had won the Citizens Medal.
“When they called me in September, I couldn’t believe it that they were going to give it to me,” she said. “I was so overwhelmed.”
The Citizens Medal is the country’s second-highest civilian honor, after the Presidential Medal of Freedom. More than 6,000 individuals were nominated for this year’s, and only 17 were awarded. Winners included gay rights advocates, health care workers, a former senator, heads of a veterans support groups and six teachers killed in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“Sitting in that room, I was thinking of how many people in our cities are doing very good things,” Copeland said. “There are so many good people out there, and they all deserve something for their commitment and their faith on this, for what God has called them to do.”
Obama said the Citizens Medal is meant to honor the selfless, often behind-the-scenes work done by Americans who have devoted everything to improving the lives of others.
In Copeland’s case, that means Sharing and Caring Hands. Copeland said her shelter serves about 800 people a day, and she’s there to greet them five mornings a week (By Friday afternoon, she was back in Minneapolis and plans to be at work on Sunday). She has said she intends to do that for the rest of her life, as long as she stays in good health.
“That’s what I do all day long,” she said. “I never look at the crowd, I look at the person in front of me, and I let God take care of the rest.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry