Mary Jo Copeland's Catholic charity, Sharing and Caring Hands, is known for helping the poor, with a minimum of paperwork. Church groups, volunteers and members of the media tour the facility regularly to admire Copeland's work, and presidential candidate George W. Bush saluted her in his acceptance speech at the Republican national convention. But Copeland's plan to build an orphanage in Brooklyn Center is drawing another kind of national attention. Representatives of a children's advocacy group are travelling to Minnesota to condemn the proposal.
ONE THING MARY JO COPELAND
doesn't do is delegate. On a weekday morning she greets, and prays with, the Lutheran church group that has volunteered to cook breakfast for the homeless and working poor in the gleaming kitchen of Sharing and Caring Hands. Then she opens the doors of the building so those gathered outside, people of every race and ethnicity, many with children, can make their way to the food shelf or to breakfast in a large dining hall.
Armed with a cell phone, Copeland spends the day responding to requests for help from all sides, granting interviews to reporters, praying, hugging kids, and washing the feet of the poor. Her entourage includes volunteers, members of her family, and even a biographer.
Encounters with Mary Jo tend to produce both skeptics and believers. Skeptics call her insistence on washing the feet of the poor self-aggrandizing. Believers admire her for the same direct action, and they include Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. Copeland says she doesn't want to comment on Bush's politics. But she's preparing for a political crusade of her own, to build what she describes as an orphanage in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center. City officials oppose the location of the home, and Sharing and Caring Hands has received anonymous phone calls from angry residents. But the opposition seems to only increase Copeland's sense of urgency.
"Mine would become a reality if we'd just give the zoning and do what needs to be done and be together as a community," Copeland said. "We've got children out there even as I sit there and speak that are waiting for that home. Why are we waiting? I'm going to fight for that and I will never, never, never give up and I will build. God will help me and his mother, Mary."
Copeland unveiled the proposal in May, but is just now getting ready to make her case to the public. The new facility would house more than 200 children. It would emphasize large sibling groups or children who can't find foster care placements. To address the concerns of Brooklyn Center residents, Mary Jo and her husband Dick say they agreed to create a charter school for the children in-house rather than placing them in local schools. They're in discussions with the College of St. Benedict about sponsoring the school. The orphanage proposal has attracted the attention of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a Washington D.C.-area group that argues children are almost always better off with their families than in foster care or group homes.
"As far as concerns about the property, there are people who say don't put an orphanage on that site. What we say is, don't put a new orphanage anywhere," said coalition directory Richard Wexler.
Wexler says too many children are taken away from their parents, only to be placed in worse situations in foster care or institutions. He says funding should instead be put into helping children's families stay stable, through housing vouchers, drug treatment and other services to the parents.
"So, for example, if Mary Jo Copeland really wants to do something useful with that Brooklyn Center site and enhance her reputation, she could use that site for more affordable housing," Wexler said.
Wexler plans to speak against the orphanage proposal today in Brooklyn Center. But the Copelands are getting ready to wage their own campaign, flying in the academic Richard McKenzie from California, who grew up in an orphanage and supports their plan. In addition, they'll send out brochures to all 20,000 homes and businesses in Brooklyn Center before making their case to the city council this fall. And Target Corporation, one of the lead financial sponsors for the proposal, is in for the long haul, according to company spokeswoman Patty Morris.
"We at Target believe in this project wholeheartedly and we intend to continue to support Mary Jo and Dick Copeland in their efforts to open the children's home, and you know definitely regardless of whatever battles might be ahead of us we again support this effort wholeheartedly," Morris said.
One of the people who says she looks forward to the creation of the children's home is Dabby Inegbe, who lives at Sharing and Caring Hands' transitional housing with her two teenage daughters. Inegbe says she was in and out of different foster homes from the ages of nine to 17, and it almost destroyed her. She says the orphanage will offer children the permanent home she didn't have.
"You know I think that taking a child, bouncing them from home to home to home, that itself is abuse," Inegbe said. "They take them and they say they're going to put them in a stable place. It's stable going from home to home to home? It's not. These kids can stay with her until they become adults and every one of them, I'm positive, will make it."
But Inegbe also says she would have been better off even in her own abusive home than in foster care. Metro-area social service agencies have been receptive to the Copelands' proposal in order to prevent histories like Inegbe's. David Sanders, head of child protection services in Hennepin County, says Copeland first asked him for his reaction to the home a few years ago.
"I talked to her about that history and really that we do have some kids that we think are really struggling and we would like to look at a large setting that focuses on education, focuses on offering a permanent place for kids as an alternative for some kids that are in our system now," Sanders said.
He says Copeland's desire to house large sibling groups would fill a real need for the county. But Sanders has some concerns as well. He says her focus on young children is at odds with the mostly older children in need of placement. And he says there's no way the home can succeed if it's built in a hostile community. Copeland says she's hopeful of winning community support, and says she's not trying to house children eligible for permanent homes in foster care.
"I'm trying to help the children that are falling through the cracks in the system, giving them a home that without me building they won't have," Copeland said. "And we'll let them sit in their bad homes or their dysfunctional homes, or we'll let them go to institutions. Mine is not an institution; they want to call it that. I called it an orphanage years ago because many of the parents were dead then, but today it's a children's home, a home to save the children that can't be helped anywhere else and God knows there's going to be a lot more of those."