This Atlanta mom has made it her mission to help local women break the cycle of addiction, incarceration and homelessness.
“I love going to court. And I really love going to jail,” says Mary Jane Stafford, an Atlanta mom who taught piano for 20 years to all the neighborhood kids. She says it so passionately with the soft Southern accent of her upbringing, and later honed at the University of Georgia. But, for 14 years, Stafford has been frequenting county jails for Bible study with women inmates. “My first day, I fell in love with the women. I related to them in a different way than others,” she says. Inspired by her own daughter’s addiction, Stafford knows firsthand the devastation drugs can cause a family.
“I volunteered to go once a week through Mount Paran Church’s outreach. Then I started going twice a week,” she recalls. “Soon, it was every day.” Stafford would eventually spend seven days a week helping the women, oftentimes coming home at midnight.
She realized the cycle was almost impossible to break. “They get out of jail with no money, no family, no phone. They walk out and around the corner to another trap. The triangle is: addicted, homeless and incarcerated.” Stafford thought, “I can help these women.” She would pick them up aft er release and take them to a free treatment program in the inner city. “I never felt afraid,” she says. Stafford spent countless hours driving the women to get new IDs, MARTA cards or clothes, or simply taking them to eat. She went to court and hospitals. Stafford did this all with her own money.
Stafford’s friends began to support her mission by giving her donations. Mount Paran Church also supported her by allowing annual fundraisers at the church. Soon, Grateful Hearts (gratefulheartsministries.org) became its own entity as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization and has made a difference in the lives of hundreds of women and families in the Atlanta area. Through a tennis tournament, art show and luncheon event at Cherokee Town and Country Club, she educates others on her mission and raises funds to help these women get back on their feet.
“I know people can change. I’ve seen it,” says Stafford. “To see the women gain self-esteem, jobs, homes, get their kids and then start giving back to others is the true blessing.”
How can you Help?
Grateful Hearts holds an annual diaper drive and raises funds for substance abuse treatment scholarships, along with providing MARTA cards and resources necessary to meet daily living needs. “Most people don’t want to go to jail or pick up homeless people. It’s a special calling,” says Stafford. “But they want to help.” Consider donating, volunteering at a retreat, buying lunch for the women or spending time with them. “Talking and relating to the women can make a big difference in their lives.” Or, book the Grateful Hearts choir to sing at your next event. It helps get their message out.
Photography by: photo by NJM Photography