Packing 400 lunches - and love - to serve the homeless

Kansas City's 'mother of the streets' rises at 4:30 each morning, packs 400 decorated bags, and then seeks out the homeless.

David Conrads
Marcia Merrick’ s Reaching Out Inc., in Kansas City, Mo., serves the city’s homeless. Here, she delivers socks and toiletries.

For years, Marcia Merrick began her day making lunches for her two children. Her kids are grown up now, but Ms. Merrick still makes lunches every morning – 400 of them. Each decorated paper bag contains a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich or a bean burrito, chips, fruit, and two homemade cookies. She also includes a note of encouragement – and then distributes them to the homeless of Kansas City, Mo.

Dubbed the “mother of the streets,” Merrick starts every day (Christmas and other holidays included) at 4:30 a.m. so she can finish her preparations and make the 15-minute drive to downtown Kansas City by 6 a.m., the time when most homeless shelters close and their overnight guests are turned out. She also makes stops at homeless encampments tucked away in secluded spots around the fringes of the city, under bridges and highway overpasses, and along the banks of the Missouri River.

Each day is a little different. She gives out half of the 400 lunches in the morning and the rest during a similar afternoon run, before the shelters open again at 4 p.m. The time in between is taken up with other tasks, such as driving someone to a social services office or to court or a health clinic. She also gives away items like clothing and bedding based on individual needs. In addition, Merrick and the volunteers who work with her help some 370 homeless families a year.

Merrick doesn’t just feed and clothe the homeless. She talks with them, learns their names, listens to their stories, and gives them hugs and encouraging words. As a result, she’s well known on the streets of Kansas City and has the trust of many of the city’s homeless.

“Really, the food and clothing I give them is just a way to get into their hearts,” she says. “A lot of them want to change, but they don’t have ... the knowledge and the emotional support to do that. Some have been on the streets so long they don’t even know where to start.”

What keeps her going, she says, is the success she has had in helping destitute individuals and families turn their lives around.

Kim and Wayne Hill are one such case. The self-employed house painters found their work all but evaporated when the economy began to sour a few years ago. In time they lost their house and found themselves living with their young son in a family shelter.

That’s where they met Merrick. She was able to do many things to help them reclaim a normal life, including helping Mr. Hill receive much needed dental work. She even found painting jobs for the couple.

“I can’t begin to tell you everything Marcia did for us,” says Mrs. Hill, whose family now lives in an apartment in a large complex, where her husband is the staff painter. “She’s so compassionate. She’s good at finding that place in your heart that’s lacking – any heartache or sadness – and then filling that void. She’s the ultimate mother.”

Merrick works not only to meet the basic needs of the homeless, but to uphold their dignity and self-respect.

Gloria Brown is the kitchen manager for the City Union Mission Family Center, which provides long-term shelter for homeless families. One Saturday a month, Merrick and a group of volunteers bring food and prepare and serve a breakfast to the residents, who number as many as 120. Ms. Brown says that instead of having the residents line up and receive their food at the serving window, as is customary, Merrick puts out place mats, silverware, and a small vase of flowers on each table. She and her helpers then take the residents’ orders.

“They wait on them like they are in a restaurant,” Brown says. “She just likes to treat them with respect and let them know that somebody cares about them.”

“Marcia serves,” says Gary Blakeman, a retiree and volunteer who has worked with Merrick for seven years. “She doesn’t just dole out food. She actually serves the homeless. And she does what she does with love. She’s truly concerned with their welfare.”

Merrick says her work of providing care and hope for society’s disadvantaged began when she was in high school in Wichita, Kan. She made several church mission trips, one for an entire summer, where she first encountered large numbers of needy people.

“I realized what a difference it makes in how I felt, caring for other people,” she says. “I didn’t know it then, but I think I was developing a heart for people who had been shunted aside by society.”

Her charitable work took a back seat to her own family for a time. But 10 years ago, when her daughter was 15, Merrick felt the need to resume her caring activities. At first, she matched up friends and acquaintances who had items they were willing to give away with people in need. The recipients were not just the homeless, but also victims of domestic violence, the unemployed, the recently divorced – pretty much anyone she knew of who had a need.

“It kind of snowballed from there,” she says. In 2001, as her activity increased and donors asked for tax write-offs, she started a nonprofit, Reaching Out Inc. Today, about 80 percent of her work is for the homeless.

Her organization works with an area church, which provides her with storage space for food, furniture, and supplies. An ever-changing roster of volunteers – school groups, church groups, friends, and acquaintances – help with decorating the bags, putting together hygiene bags (toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, clean pair of socks, and the like), baking cookies, and organizing food and clothing drives. Occasionally, volunteers go out with her on her rounds.

Merrick herself gets by modestly on alimony and a small pension. Circumstances may compel her to return to the paid workforce sometime this summer, which would necessitate an adjustment to her current grueling volunteer schedule. Regardless of what the future holds, she says, she will continue to work on behalf of the homeless in one way or another.

“I truly believe we can make a difference in their lives, and I don’t want anybody to ever think that somebody doesn’t care,” she says. “They’re homeless, but they’re still human.”

To learn more about Marcia Merrick’s work, go to

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