Although it would be difficult for most people to recall a year more harrowing and fraught with uncertainty than 2020, there were still some bright spots, thanks to women who decided to press ahead and bring light and hope to their communities.
Meet four women — and one girl — who went above and beyond the call this year to inspire, educate, nourish and comfort people in need.
After Michael Brown was shot and killed by a White police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, Rose McGee said she felt powerless and distraught as she watched the news footage at home in Golden Valley, Minn.
“I thought, ‘I have to do something,’ ” said McGee, 69. “I saw all those hopeless faces at the protests on TV and it suddenly came to me: ‘I need to make some sweet potato pies and drive them down to those people in Missouri.’”
McGee, who had always turned to sweet potato pie during times when she needed comfort, did exactly that. She baked 30 pies, loaded them into her car and drove more than 500 miles to hand them out at random to mourners and protesters in Ferguson.
When she returned home, McGee decided to keep the sweet vibes going and started the Sweet Potato Comfort Pie project. After George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis on May 25, just a few miles from her suburban home, she and a group of volunteers went to his makeshift memorial to give pies to protesters. With each pie, they also handed out a poem written by McGee’s daughter, Roslyn Harmon.
“Remember to eat, pray and love as you partake in making a difference, for there is much to be proud of,” it read.
McGee now hopes to expand on that sentiment in January, when she said she’ll distribute a fresh batch of sweet potato pies to people in need in her community on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“I had a woman tell me that the pie I gave her reminded her of the sweet potato pies her mother would make when they didn’t have much else to eat,” she recalled. “She said, ‘I can’t eat this pie — I’m going to put it in my freezer and pull it out every time I need comfort.’”
“There’s nothing like a sweet potato pie,” McGee continued, “to tell people that they’re loved.”
She’s only 6 and can barely reach the checkout counter in the grocery store, but Paris Williams has made a big impact on people who are homeless and hungry in St. Louis.
During the past year, the first-grader and her parents have delivered more than 1,500 care packages filled with food, drinks and grooming supplies to those in need through the Paris Cares Foundation. With more people out of work and facing evictions due to the pandemic, the care packages are welcome during hard times in St. Louis, said her mother, Alicia Marshall.
Paris came up with the idea for her charity after reading a picture book in kindergarten about the importance of giving, according to Marshall. She and her daughter talked about ways they could pay it forward, and decided on “Paris Cares” packages.
“Paris amazes me with all of her ideas and I just want to be there to support her in any way possible,” said Marshall, 32.
She and her daughter now make regular trips to the store to buy snacks, gloves, socks, soap, deodorant and hand sanitizer, which Paris then packs into paper bags she’s decorated herself. The bags are delivered to local shelters and food banks to be given out to anyone in need.
“I tell Paris to be kind and brave every day and always do what is right and stand up for others,” Marshall said. “I am extremely proud of her and all of her community service. She wants to help others because she has a big heart.”
Paris raises funds by selling Paris Cares T-shirts for $25 to keep her project going year-round. With so many people hurting, Paris said, “it’s always important to try to help others when you can.”
“Treat others how you want to be treated,” she added. “I want people to do good things.”
Chrishawndra Matthews had tried for years to get her son help with developing his reading skills in her inner-city Cleveland neighborhood, but always came up empty.
Derrick learned to read at age 3, but unless Matthews took him to a suburban library, “there were no reading resources available to help him on his path to becoming a lifelong learner,” she said. “It was very frustrating.”
Finally, two years ago, Matthews decided the solution was to start her own program.
She used profits from her home-cleaning business to buy books for kids in her neighborhood and give them out when she talked to their parents about the importance of reading every day. “I’d hand out books everywhere I went,” she said. “My son [now 9] was the fire under my feet.”
Through her nonprofit, Literacy in the H.O.O.D. (Helping Out Our Disenfranchised), Matthews, a 47-year-old single mom, has raised enough funds to donate about 76,000 books to children throughout the Cleveland area, as well as connect families with free tutoring services.
Now that many young readers are learning online during the pandemic, Matthews said she takes piles of donated books to free lunch sites at local schools to be distributed with food.
“We go the extra mile to seek out and connect with target audiences,” she said. And with her son’s help, she has now started a program just for boys called Boys Do Read.
“There’s nothing like reading to help stimulate a child’s imagination and help him to understand the world,” Matthews said.
Shelly Tygielski was overcome with worry when she saw people losing their jobs after her city of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., went into its first stay-at-home order in late March.
The mindfulness teacher wondered what she could do to bring people hope during a time of stress and angst. Working at her kitchen table, she came up with Pandemic of Love, a nonprofit that matches anyone in need with someone who wants to help.
“The concept is based on the premise that everyone in the community has something they can give and something they need,” said Tygielski, 43.
She initially thought Pandemic of Love would be a grass-roots organization for her own community. But when requests came pouring in from across the country and the world, Tygielski said she knew she was on to something that could create bonds of compassion.
So far, Pandemic of Love has created “give and receive” matches between more than 1 million people, with help from a network of about 1,000 “matchmaking” volunteers, according to Tygielski.
“Our donors have paid for everything from groceries and car payments to past due rent and funeral costs,” she said, noting that more than $52 million in direct transactions have taken place since March.
Most requests are simple and cost an average of $150, she added.
The nonprofit doesn’t collect personal information about participants, Tygielski said, but instead steps out of the way, allowing one-on-one connections to form.
“This is a goodwill effort,” she said. “It’s run on love and faith in humanity and each other.”
Diptee Pathak was working as a home-care physical therapy assistant in October when she noticed a big problem facing many of her clients: Their insurance companies wouldn’t cover the cost of durable medical equipment such as wheelchairs, walkers, shower chairs and canes.
As a result, many of her patients — mostly seniors — suffered more falls and had to be hospitalized again, said Pathak, 29, who is in the last year of her doctoral program in physical therapy at Neumann University in Aston, Pa. She knew that frequent trips to the hospital could put them at even greater risk of being exposed to the coronavirus.
When she saw that one of her elderly clients was using an old walker that was too small for him and learned that he couldn’t afford a new one, Pathak decided it was time to take action. She started a charity, DME Donations, to encourage people to donate unused wheelchairs and walkers and to raise money for new equipment to help her patients become mobile again.
In less than three months, Pathak said she has collected or purchased about 150 pieces of medical equipment for people who live in low-income housing, group homes or homeless shelters and lack insurance and family support.
One reason she was inspired to act, she said, is because she was born with Erb’s palsy, a nerve condition that caused damage in one of her arms. Physical therapy was crucial to healing, Pathak said.
Her second inspiration comes from Mahatma Gandhi, she said.
“I believe in what he said: ‘In a gentle way, you can shake the world.’ ”