Remembering Mary Elizabeth McCarthy

Mary Elizabeth McCarthy at a rally to Save Our Services, 2011

Mary Elizabeth (far right) at a 2011 rally to urge Gov. Corbett to stop saving money for a “rainy day” and instead fully fund human services to help Pennsylvanians in need.

Mary Elizabeth McCarthy (1944 – 2018) was elected to Just Harvest’s Board of Directors in 1999. She served as a board member for the past 19 years, helping our organization plan, grow, and develop as a voice for our hungry neighbors.

As a volunteer, she greeted tax clients, made phone calls, and staff our information table at special events. As a Just Harvest member, she dug deep into her pocketbook to make a personally significant contribution.

It says something remarkable about her that for several of her years on the board she served in the often thankless role as the Board’s secretary. Because she was born with cerebral palsy, she took on that task despite the unique challenges she faced in taking meeting notes in real time and in typing up minutes later on.

Still, no one was more thorough. Even when her fingers sometimes failed, her memory was undaunted.

Mary Elizabeth McCarthy testifies at a Pittsburgh City Council hearing to increase funding for anti-hunger programs, Nov. 2003

Several times over the years, she testified at Pittsburgh’s City Council budget hearings about the urgency of investing public money in the fight against hunger. She was, at times, also one of those hungry neighbors; not just a leader of our organization, but a client as well. Our work on public policy was not an ideological abstraction for Mary Elizabeth.

For her, a strong public safety net that included social security disability, Medicaid, and food stamps was a lifeline. Economic injustice was a personal threat. She understood the pain of skipping a meal because the cupboard was bare.

And yet, her decades-long commitment on the issue on hunger was not primarily a matter of self-interest. Rather, it came from a deep well of commitment and engagement that weaved her own experiences of discrimination and economic struggle together with strands from history and politics, Catholic social teaching, and her personal warmth and compassion for others.

Engraved at the gravesite of Robert Kennedy, a man Mary Elizabeth deeply admired, is this quote from a 1966 speech to South African students protesting apartheid.

It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice. He sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.”

Mary Elizabeth spent her lifetime and her service to Just Harvest sending forth such tiny ripples of hope.

We will honor her memory with our every future act of courage and with our belief that all of us help to shape human history. We will join our ripples to hers when we improve the lots of others, and she will be with us still when join together in a mighty current in the struggle against injustice.


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