12 Americans honored for caring work

WASHINGTON – With 12 children, Mary Ann Wright had plenty of uses for her $236 monthly Social Security check.

But one night in 1980, Wright said she was inspired to feed the hungry. Taking her check, Wright bought Thanksgiving dinner for 300 homeless people, and for the next two years continued to use her payments to feed the hungry.

She was one of 12 people whose altruism earned them a place Monday in the Hall of Fame for Caring Americans. Organizers cited her compassion after businesses followed Wright’s lead and chipped in, giving her enough by 1984 to start her own foundation.

The Mary Ann Wright Foundation, based in Oakland, Calif., now has an annual budget of $137,000 and feeds 450 families a day.

“I thank God for calling me, waking me and telling me to feed the hungry,” said Wright, 84. “It is the joy of my life to be able to help someone if only a little bit.”

The nonprofit, Washington-based Hall of Fame for Caring Americans inducted its first class of honorees in 1989.

“My philosophy of life is when you get up the ladder you want to reach back and give someone a hand, just like someone did for you years before,” said former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., who chairs the Caring Institute’s board of trustees, the sponsor of the awards.

Sister Antonia Brenner, another award recipient, said she’s never thought twice about giving up her life in comfortable Beverly Hills to aid prisoners in Tijuana, Mexico. After visiting La Mesa State Penitentiary 40 years ago, she was so struck by their despondence that she began volunteering there.

In 1977, Brenner made the choice to live permanently in one of the prison cells so she could provide prisoners round-the-clock support and protection from abuse. She’s now known as the “prison angel.”

The other people named to the Hall of Fame for Caring Americans, are:

Alice Coles of Bayview, Va., a descendent of slaves who fought a prison land-grab that the state of Virginia announced in 1995. Organizing the families, she raised enough money to buy adjacent land and build new homes for all 57 Bayview families.

The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who was president of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., for 25 years until 1987. He holds the Guinness Book of Records distinction of being the most honored person with 150 honorary degrees and the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Alfredo Molina of Phoenix, Ariz., a son of poor Cuban refugees. With little money, Molina worked to build a small jewelry business. He is now one of the nation’s most successful jewelers and donates millions each year to 167 charities.

Genny Nelson of Portland, Ore., whose Sisters of the Road cafe gives the homeless 300 warm meals a day as well as job training, employment and support groups.

Gloria WilderBrathwaite, vice president of The Children’s Health Fund’s Mobile Medical Project in New York, was the first doctor to volunteer for the innovative project 14 years ago to provide medical care to the inner city. She still rides in vans to provide care to people living in the rough neighborhoods of Washington, D.C.

Kyle Amber, 16, of Pinecrest, Fla., who founded a program to help young children with terminal illness. He and others for the last 10 years have helped raise more than $100,000 to visit sick kids and bring them presents and fulfill their wishes.

May Lan Dong, 18, of Cambridge, Mass., whose trip to Africa at age 10 inspired her to found a program to aid the poor there. She has helped raise $50,000 for an all-girls orphanage, vocational school and high school in Guinea.

Jacob Komar, 13, of Burlington, Conn., creator of a program to recycle thousands of outdated computers discarded from rich families to distribute to the poor. He and others have rebuilt and given away more than 1,000 computers.

Aishlinn O’Connor, 16, of Prairie Village, Kan., who created her own organization to help the underprivileged after she was told at age 9 that she was too young to volunteer. She raised $75,000 to help a local home for the aged convert their back yard into a playground and wheelchair garden as a way to bring children and senior citizens together.

Greg Sweeney, 18, of Wilmington, Del., who founded a program for homeless boys seeking connection and stability. His club gives youngsters a chance to develop friendships, learn from mentors and share adventures as well as improve the community.

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