MINNEAPOLIS — Donald Tillman and Joanna Wiborg found themselves in a "bad situation" in early February – they were homeless with nowhere to go.
The couple came to Mary's Place in Minneapolis with their three children ages 12, 11 and 3, not knowing what to expect. They were nervous and the children were scared.
But the couple had never met Mary Jo Copeland.
"She took us in and made us feel right at home," Tillman said. "It really helped us in a bad situation." The children were happy and felt at home within minutes, Wiborg said.
Stories like this happen every day at Sharing and Caring Hands, and Mary's Place.
Copeland founded Sharing and Caring Hands in 1985 as a safety net for those who couldn't get help from the government – those who fell through the cracks.
Today, the organization helps thousands of individuals and families with emergency needs for rent, utilities, health expenses, food, clothing, shoes, travel expenses, job costs and more.
On Feb. 15, Copeland was honored by President Barack Obama with the Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation's second-highest civilian honor, for her years of service to the community. She was among 13 recipients chosen from more than 6,000 nominations.
Copeland traveled to Washington to receive her medal from the president. She was accompanied by her daughter Barb and Fr. Cory Rohlfing, pastor of St. Jude of the Lake in Mahtomedi.
"I still haven't taken it all in," Copeland said in an interview before she left for Washington.
"When I got the call I was a bit overwhelmed, but yet very humbled because there are so many people in this world doing very dedicated things for our Lord, all over, in every city. I was very, very honored," she told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Copeland has always felt called to help others. She and her husband, Dick, raised 12 children, but she knew she wanted to do even more.
"I knew that God was calling me beyond the family. The family has my love – I never worked – I just taught them how to love God and make the world better because they were in it," she said. "I knew that that love had to go beyond that house. It was just a calling; it was there as they were growing up, and I knew. I didn't know what, but I knew that I had to do the will of God."
And, people such as Tillman and Wiborg are happy that she answered that call.
"She's very deserving of it (the award), we've seen it just in the six days we've been here," Tillman said.
Said Wiborg: "I've never met anybody like her in my entire life. She can touch the hearts of even the toughest people to get through to them and put a smile on their face."
Copeland's impact goes beyond helping those in need. She also has managed to turn people struggling financially into part of her vast army of staff and volunteers.
"There are no words to explain her. She's not of this world because if she was, she couldn't be doing all that she does," said Melissa Hightower, office manager and volunteer coordinator at Sharing and Caring Hands. "I've been on both sides of the wall. Me and my children were here as clients and she took us in. I started volunteering, and a few months later she offered me a job."
During a ceremony to honor the recipients of the Presidential Citizens Medal in the East Wing of the White House, Obama told them, their families and others gathered for the event that "this is one of my favorites, because it's a moment when, as a people, we get to recognize some extraordinary men and women who have gone above and beyond for their country and for their fellow citizens — often without fanfare; often with not a lot of attention; very rarely for any profit."
"You do it because it's the right thing to do, because you want to give back. And today, we honor you. We celebrate you," he said. "And, most of all, we have a chance to say thank you. Because all of us are what the rest of us aspire to be."
"In America," he added, "we have the benefit of living in this big and diverse nation. … What binds us together, what unites us is a single sacred word: citizen."
Towalski is a multimedia reporter on the staff of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.