Something about Mary

Donations are down, but Mary Watts’ TLC Kitchen won’t quit

Mary Watts runs the TLC Soup Kitchen.

Mary Watts runs the TLC Soup Kitchen.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Darrell Zahony was desperate. He needed to find food for himself, his wife and their five children. Panicked and near tears, the 30-year-old Zahony turned to Pastor Wilmur Brown Jr. of the Del Paso Church of God. Zahony, who worked full-time for a local temporary agency, had just been laid off and, after paying May’s rent and utilities, found himself at the end of the month with bare cupboards—and no idea how he would feed his family.

In Brown’s mind, there was only one place to turn: Mary Watts and the TLC Soup Kitchen.

It did not matter to Watts that Zahony, a stranger to her, was directed to her home, which sits next to TLC’s offices on High Street in Del Paso Heights. It did not matter that it was Memorial Day weekend and she was spending time with her family. It did not even matter that Watts had to reach into her own refrigerator to help fill out the box of food she prepared for the Zahony family.

To Watts, it was just another day in a string of days stretching back to 1988 where someone was in need and Watts and her small army of volunteers tried to fill the gap. “People are hungry every day,” she says simply, as explanation for why TLC never really shuts its doors.

That philosophy has become harder for Watts’ organization to live up to this past year because of a dramatic decrease in food donations from area supermarkets due, she believes, to store liability issues. According to Watts, TLC used to receive 15 pallets—about $30,000 worth—of free food every six weeks from area grocers. In the last year, however, that contribution has dropped to four or five pallets, or $4,500 worth, of food every four months.

As a result, TLC went from handing out 300 boxes of food per month to 100 boxes, in addition to the 20 or so emergency food boxes Watts makes each week. In the past, Watts was able to fill boxes with enough fresh and canned meat, vegetables, pastas and cereal to feed a family of four for about three days. For the past year, however, boxes have contained only cereal, some canned vegetables and miscellaneous items such as licorice sticks, soap and other non-food items.

Other community food programs have also felt the pinch, with organizations like the Sacramento Food Bank and Senior Gleaners reporting that grocery store donations to their agencies also dropped during the last year.

Watts can’t think about the past year, the decreasing supplies and the ever-increasing need in her community without becoming choked with frustration. “We have needy people everywhere,” she says, sighing. “I’m not even talking about the homeless—I’m talking about regular working folk. The woman who works in the kitchen at the school or hospital making $7 per hour, with three kids. That’s barely enough for a single person to make it, let alone someone with a family.”

Pick up the ball
It’s two days after Memorial Day and Mary Watts’ house is abuzz with activity.

The phone, it seems, never stops ringing. Several of her eight grown children, and four of her 11 grandchildren, troop in and out of the house, while a couple from Cleveland, Ohio, use Watts’ kitchen as a base of operation to search for homes in Sacramento. When a visitor comments on the level of activity, Watts lets out a hearty laugh, saying, “Honey, when isn’t it like this?”

Mary Watts calls everyone “honey” or “baby.” She refers to the people TLC serves each month as “my families” and “my babies.” And nothing does her heart more good than getting the news she’s just received: a local company has issued a $20,000 challenge grant to Watts’ organization—enough to keep TLC in food for 18 months when combined with other cash donations and a new grant from the San Francisco-based Zellerbach Family Fund.

Speaking on the phone to a local supporter, Watts exclaims, “Our help is here! Oh, God, I can’t believe this. I’m numb.”

Provided by Give Something Back—an office supply company that gives the bulk of its profits to communities in the Bay Area and Sacramento—the $20,000 donation will allow Watts to again fill her baskets with fresh meats and vegetables, milk, pastas and cereal, items especially important, Watts says, to her “babies and seniors.”

In 2000, Give Something Back donated more than $387,000 to charities, some $87,000 of which went to Sacramento-area nonprofits. According to Lori Hope, spokeswoman for Give Something Back, the company has consistently donated roughly $6,000 annually to TLC, but decided to up its donation after it heard that food donations had dropped so dramatically. “Donations are down all over, so I think it’s up to companies who are doing well to pick up the ball.”

Other donations from Foodlink in Sacramento (a local emergency food distribution center) and the Mutual Assistance Network (a local private, nonprofit community development corporation that targets financial resources within the Del Paso Heights area) also get high praise from Watts, who firmly believes that if God did not want her to do this work, “He wouldn’t keep giving me families to serve and the means to do it.”

The Zellerbach’s recent grant of $15,000, made through the Mutual Assistance Network, will certainly help facilitate that work, Watts says, explaining that half of the grant will go toward food, while the other half will purchase a new computer and fund computer training and grant-writing classes for some of Watts’ volunteers.

“The people in Del Paso Heights have had a hard time finding the opportunities to help better themselves,” says Richard Dana, interim director for the Network. “Mary can now provide those opportunities from a true grass-roots level.”

Lessons from a Dumpster
Eleven years ago, Mary Watts’ life vision didn’t include running a soup kitchen.

In fact, the former computer operator had her hands full in 1987 nursing her second husband, Johnny Watts, back to health after he suffered a devastating aneurysm from which doctors never expected him to fully recover. Under his wife’s care, however, Johnny learned to speak, walk, talk and sing again. Friends report that it was during this recovery period that another tragedy befell the family: one of Mary’s daughters, who was then 28 years old, was shot at near point-blank range by an acquaintance who appeared at the Watts’ door one evening. Her daughter, who cannot be named because of her involvement in a victim’s protection program, wasn’t expected to walk again. But according to friends, Watts’ courage and determination made that diagnosis moot.

But there was yet one more life-altering event waiting for Mary Watts. In 1988, Watts’ mother spotted a little girl eating out of a Dumpster in her Del Paso Heights neighborhood. Soon thereafter, Watts and a neighbor began feeding people from the Miracle Church of God and, in 1991, TLC Soup Kitchen was officially born.

For more than a decade, TLC provided hot meals twice a week at various community centers around town. Although no longer providing hot meals, TLC still distributes between 1,000-2,000 boxes of holiday food to families in need, in addition to the 200 or so boxes of food given away each month. The organization also started two community gardens in Del Paso Heights, organized community clean-ups, supervised low-income youth in after-school programs, organized back-to-school shopping trips for hundreds of area children and hosted Thanksgiving dinners for hungry families in association with the Sacramento Kings.

And closer to home—Watts’ home—it is not unusual for homeless people, who by this point are no longer strangers, to see Mary Watts outside and say to her, “Mama, I’m hungry”—to which Watts replies, “Come on baby, I’ll fix you a sandwich.”

Box of hope
It is Friday, June 1, and about 20 volunteers are milling about Watts’ front yard and carport, setting up a two-aisle “mini-market.” Arms are flying furiously as a group of women stack canned goods, while another unpacks boxes of pasta, salad dressing, coffee and cereal. Four men trundle back and forth from Watts’ garage, carrying boxes overflowing with fresh bok choy, asparagus and lettuce, which they place on the grassy side of one “aisle.”

But the big bounty of the day—and Mary Watts’ greatest thrill—are the 300 pounds of chicken fryers TLC is able to provide to round out the families boxes.

Now it’s almost 11 a.m. and Watts and her volunteers have been setting up since 9 a.m. Already, there are about 15 people in line, waiting until Watts gives the OK to grab a box and begin filling it with food. The scene is one of frantic activity, and Mary Watts is a study in perpetual motion, answering questions and barking orders like some benevolent drill sergeant.

Darrell Zahony has come back to Watts’ home, this time to volunteer his services. “I just wanted to help them out in return for the favor she did for me,” he says.

Watts greets the people in line like old friends. “How’s your kids?” she asks one woman as she tries to juggle both a child and an empty box. “Don’t forget the vegetables!” she shouts to the crowd in general. “I don’t care if you like it or not!” It’s all good-natured fussing, the kind of talk you’d expect from a matriarch of a large family. And Watts is nothing, it seems, if not a mother figure to the people in this neighborhood.