Kids' Food Basket founder shares perspectives on life, leadership with students

March 7, 2023 (Volume 46, Number 13)
Article by Brian Vernellis

woman in wheelchair on stage, a woman seated to her left

Mary Hoodhood, founder of Kids' Food Basket, shares her thoughts on leadership with students at a recent Hauenstein Center Wheelhouse Talk at the DeVos Center.

On an evening more than 20 years ago, Mary Hoodhood had a restless night of sleep. The thought of a 5-year-old girl sifting through garbage to find food for her family plagued her conscience. 

Hoodhood, who was working at nonprofit God’s Kitchen in Grand Rapids at the time, heard the story from a friend about a principal who discovered the child looking for food to take home. The girl’s plight was echoed by more than 100 other students at the school, the principal said. It prompted Hoodhood to action.

With donations from friends and family, Hoodhood founded Kids' Food Basket. Never did she think the organization would eventually serve thousands of schoolchildren a day and provide 1.6 million meals annually 20 years later.

“I never thought the problem was that big,” said Hoodhood.

Hoodhood shared her life and leadership perspectives with students as part of the Hauenstein Center’s Wheelhouse Talks on February 17 at the DeVos Center, Loosemore Auditorium, on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus. 

“I don’t frame myself as a leader,” said Hoodhood. “I know I am because I know I’ve done some stuff, but I don’t really look at myself as a leader. I do understand that I lead by example.”

An accident at a young age also provided perspective for Hoodhood. Since 1977, she has been in a wheelchair, the result of an automobile accident, but she said she has never let her disability define her or set limitations. 

“I had a physical therapist, and she said in life, whether we like it or not, we're all dependent on the people around us,” Hoodhood said. “The key is to surround yourself with people that you can depend on. 

“The other thing I was told early after I was injured was peace comes from within. If you really can grasp that and internalize that and live by that, it really is very powerful.”

Her actions and impact in the Grand Rapids area were recognized in 2010 when President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second-highest civilian honor available. 

“There is joy and happiness in some of the small things in life,” Hoodhood said. “Appreciate a flower, laugh with a friend, nurture your relationships. I will not let a disability define me or it deter me from doing anything I can.” 

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This article was last edited on March 6, 2023 at 3:49 p.m.

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