by Stephanie Himango, NBC News producer
Under a black sky, Marcia Merrick put her key in the ignition and started another day. Only a high half moon shone down as she navigated the darkness -- her minivan packed with 400 sack lunches she'd already made that morning, as she does every morning. She flipped on the rock radio station and Peter Frampton's "Show Me The Way" filtered through the speakers. ".... I wonder how you're feeling..." Frampton sang.
She pulled into the parking lot of the homeless shelter -- still more than an hour before daybreak. People moved like silhouettes under the streetlights and made their way to Marcia. Many of them had been waiting for her white minivan to arrive. She slid back the side door and began to distribute the lunches.
"There you go." . . ."Thank you"
"Here you go. Have a blessed day." . . ."Thank you sweetheart."
After everyone who wanted a lunch had received one, Marcia moved on. As she drove through downtown Kansas City, Missouri, she spotted a homeless woman sitting in the dark on a bench, and her brake lights went on. The woman slowly made her way to Marcia's open passenger window, outstretched an empty hand, and turned and walked away clutching the lunch bag. This same scene was repeated about six times before she reached her next destination.
In the noisy concrete underbelly of highways and train tracks, daylight was beginning to show. Marcia unloaded more lunches, and people unseen gravitated toward her. They know her by now, most of them. She's known as the Mother of the Streets in Kansas City, Missouri. At 61, hair pulled back in a ponytail, she brings more than lunch to the city's homeless population, which now is estimated to be 2,512 according to a point in time study by the Homeless Services Coalition of Greater Kansas City. That number jumps to 13,300 if you look at the unduplicated count of people served throughout the year by all agencies. Marcia brings a caring, inquisitive spirit. She learns names and asks specific questions that stem from previous conversations. She bothers to find out what people want and what they need.
In 2001, she started Reaching Out Inc, a 501(c)(3) non-profit which allows her to deliver help to the city's neediest residents on a daily basis. Seven days a week. Through Marcia, and the generous donations of those who know what she does, she provides food, clothing, shelter, furniture, transportation, encouragement, love. She says this is about love, about hearts.
What motivates her to get up at 4:15am every day, year after year? It's not a paycheck, because Marcia doesn't receive one. It's not glory, she says. It seems to be more of a motivation to protect and nurture.
"I never want somebody to hurt. I never want somebody to wish that somebody cared about them. And number one, I never want anyone to feel like a mistake," she paused. "Because nobody is a mistake. We all have something to offer."
Her life mission is now to stop others from giving up. Her daily ritual which spans about 12 hours is a minute by minute counterpoint to pain and suffering. With sincerity, she nourishes, she uplifts, she asks poignant questions, she looks into eyes, she holds hands, she gives hugs, and she keeps coming back. Her giving spirit does not seem to take a break, as I witnessed over breakfast.
We ducked inside a diner to wait out the driving rain storm that made 7:30am look like 10:00pm. After we placed our orders and received our food, Marcia chatted kindly with the waitress, who I will call Lucy. Lucy was petite, and struck me as responsible and stoic. Marcia noticed the restaurant was quite empty, and casually asked Lucy how she makes tips when there are no customers. Lucy said it's tough.
After inquiring about where Lucy lives, Marcia's eyes grew more concerned and compassionate. She thought, then switched back to the topic of money and asked whether Lucy was able to make ends meet. Lucy said she could, adding that it was a little challenging right now because she had been off work for a foot problem a few weeks prior, and during that time was unpaid. Marcia's eyes fixed on Lucy's, and she asked, "Have you paid your April rent yet?" Not yet, said Lucy, acknowledging it was almost a week past due. "How much is your rent?" asked Marcia. Lucy said it was $410 dollars a month. Marcia said, "I can help you with that, you know. That's what I do."
Stunned, Lucy looked at Marcia, then looked at me, then looked at Marcia again. "Are you some kind of angel?" she asked Marcia in disbelief. She then turned to me, "Is she some kind of angel?" Her eyes glassed over. "I'm gonna cry," she said, as she maintained her composure and gently tapped away a tear.
Marcia pulled out a Reaching Out Inc checkbook, and wrote a check to the management company where Lucy lives. "What's in your refrigerator at home?" Marcia asked Lucy. "Two eggs, butter...." The list was short. Marcia pulled out a sheet of paper and a pen, and asked what foods Lucy would like to eat. She mentioned fruit, vegetables, eggs. "Do you need toiletries?" asked Marcia. "Yes, well..." Marcia found out what vehicle Lucy drives and where she parks. Marcia said she would discreetly place the groceries in Lucy's car before she finished her shift.
Outside, the streets ran with water, but the rain storm had passed. It was still early morning. Marcia would go back out and continue to be the hands and feet of Reaching Out Inc., and by day's end, the remainder of the 400 lunches would be handed out to hungry, homeless people.
She knows her deeds are highly dependent on the generosity of others. But it's through her awareness, tenacity and human warmth that Marcia can offer an unexpected light to Lucy and many others on a rainy day.
For more information about Marcia Merrick and how you can help, please visit http://www.reachingoutinc.org.