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In 1984, at the tender age of 82, Mary McAena did something that, to many people today, would seem to be near insanity. She began bringing soup to the homeless in Orange California.

In a few short years, with the help of friends who found her compassion contagious, their efforts had brought so many homeless to Hart Park that the city of Orange felt compelled to donate a patch of land less conspicuous than Hart Park. They chose an isolated spot at the end of Struck Ave., where the city’s maintenance yard is located. There, Mary and her friends would serve their soup of compassion and kindness to the less fortunate in Orange County. Back then Mary called it the “Heart of the Park.”

36 years have passed since Mary’s group first began to serve those who needed help. During those years Mary passed away at the young age of 100. When she passed the “Heart of the Park” became Mary’s Kitchen in her honor. And like the story mustard seed, Mary’s Kitchen grew. 

Credit: J. Underwood

Mary’s dear friend and protégé Gloria Seuss, had the wisdom and foresight to make Mary’s Kitchen a nonprofit organization. Donations came pouring in and that little patch of dirt and asphalt was transformed into a structured building with 4 state-of-the-art ovens, 2 tiled showers, 5 brand new washers and dryers, a canopied dining area, a parking lot for volunteers, 2 walk in meat lockers along with numerous refrigerators to store donated foods.

Also, Mary’s Kitchen has expanded its services. In addition to meals, Mary’s Kitchen provides free eye exams, eyeglasses, free pet care, wheelchairs, walkers, clothing, food, hygiene products, in short if you need it but can’t afford it, chances are Mary’s Kitchen has it. Plus the feeling of helping and making a difference is in each person who volunteers. Some bring their children to teach them the right things to do. All this at no cost to the city, the county or the state. Truly Mary’s Kitchen is a ray of hope that is needed by so many and the breath of kindness the many homeless have forgotten existed.

Credit: J. Underwood

And now the city of Orange wants to shut all that down. Like a good worker that the boss doesn’t like because of their look, the city has been compiling dastardly deeds done by Mary’s Kitchen. This past February, Mary’s Kitchen was called in to meet with council members twice by the city. Neither of those meetings were attended by any of the city council. Instead, a city liaison was sent to inform Mary’s Kitchen of their grievances. The mouthpiece complained of garbage in the streets and hordes of homeless congregating around Mary’s Kitchen after closing.

“You are responsible for the homeless, even after they leave your place” was the proclamation. The second meeting was more drastic. The liaison squawked, Mary’s Kitchen is attracting the dreaded criminal element. No criminals were named but that doesn’t really matter. Within weeks after that meeting Mary’s Kitchen was given her final notice, the city contract will not be renewed. Just like the good worker, none of those reasons given are the real reason for shutting down Mary’s Kitchen. The real reason is an apartment complex is going up on the property abutting Mary’s Kitchen to the north.  Heaven forbid the city have homeless “criminal” wretches eating next to their new tax revenue. But exactly who are the real criminals here?

To hobble and then chloroform such an irreplaceable haven as Mary’s Kitchen, at a time when homelessness is at crisis levels, coupled with the foot-dragging of the County Board of Supervisors on this issue is a virtual death sentence to the many vulnerable homeless. One of our greatest presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, stated, “a country’s greatness is not based on its military might, nor its economic wealth, a country’s greatness stems from how well she treats her less fortunate.” Looks like the only greatness coming out of Orange is Mary’s Kitchen and the politicians want to shut it down for money. Take a look in the mirror council members, therein lies the real criminal element.

Credit: J. Underwood

Patrick Hogan is a retired surveyor and a 25 year member of the International Union of Operating Engineers. In 2011 I went to college and earned a bachelor of general studies. Currently, I am homeless, and I volunteer at Mary’s Kitchen six days a week and have for the last two and a half years. I’ve published five poems and four short stories by various publications.

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