Mississippi Habitat volunteer builds more than 500 homes
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Her daddy owned a hardware store in Indianola, and he saw to it that his daughter could hammer a nail straight and true.
He figured such a skill might one day come in handy.
And so it has.
Mary Louise Shaw, 79, of Jackson has helped build more than 500 houses since 1992 through Habitat for Humanity Mississippi Capital Area.
Even Shaw has a hard time grasping that number.
“I had no idea,” she says. “My goodness, that’s enough houses for a small town.”
Shaw, who taught 41 years in Jackson Public Schools, recently received the Marsha Meeks Kelly GIVE Award for Lifetime Achievement in Volunteer Service, primarily for her work at Habitat.
The words of that award should be highlighted and stand alone: Lifetime. Volunteer. Service.
“For decades she has spent hundreds of Saturdays building walls, putting on roof decking — all the while gently showing others that they, too, can do the same thing,” says Merrill Tenney McKewen, executive director of Habitat for Humanity Mississippi Capital Area.
“Lots of people talk about supporting Habitat and they volunteer from time to time or make a donation, and all of that is important. But Mary Louise Shaw has shown up again and again, year after year — in the freezing cold, heat, rain or shine.
“Those of us who love and admire Mary Louise see her acting as the hands and feet of Christ. She is love in action.”
Shaw remembers her first work day on a Habitat house.
“We were up on a roof in July,” Shaw says. “It was hot, of course, but this big tree beside the house blocked the sun enough to make it bearable.
“We came down for lunch, and when we went back up, the sun had moved and the shade was gone. I stayed up there about 15 minutes and had to come down.”
But it didn’t run her off for good.
Few things can.
In 2005, Shaw helped organize a response a team from Jackson’s Covenant Presbyterian Church to help clean up the Gulf Coast when Katrina ravaged Mississippi’s beach towns.
She recalls walking through the rubble of a home in Ocean Springs, looking for anything that might be salvaged. Shaw found a tea cup with no cracks or chips, and she will never forget how much that tiny item meant to the owners who had just lost everything.
Later, she went to Bay St. Louis, one of the hardest hit areas.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Shaw says. “I thought, ‘This must be what it looks like after an atomic bomb explosion.’ All sort of things, even cars, were up in the trees.”
In 2010, she organized another church response team when a tornado struck Yazoo City.
She volunteers several times a month with Meals on Wheels, which delivers a hot meal to senior citizens.
“Some of the people we serve . it’s pitiful. Almost hopeless,” Shaw says, shaking her head. “I always come away with a thankfulness that I was able to help those people in some small way.”
On Christmas Eve, she walks the halls of local hospitals with her church’s hand bell group, performing carols for the patients and staff.
Shaw spreads her good deeds internationally.
She has been to Kenya seven times, helping build churches and schools. That work, especially completing a church, touches her deeply.
“When we get there, the slab is already poured,” she says. “Sheet metal is stacked up for us, and that’s what we use to frame the church. We usually complete it on a Saturday, and they have a church dedication on Sunday.
“It’s a rich thing to behold. They’ve usually been worshipping beneath a tree or in a shack, and now they have a new building. No, not like our churches here with beautiful stained glass windows. But they’re very appreciative.”
They usually celebrate that night with a goat roast.
“They’re giving you the very best they have,” Shaw says.
Shaw, who has never married, comes from a giving family. Her brother and sister-in-law — Boyd and Sybil Shaw of Jackson — have also volunteered in Kenya. So, too, have Shaw’s nieces, Kirsten Shaw and Kathy Kenne, and nephew, Graham.
“I never got a chance to meet my grandfather, but I do remember my grandmother was always having people over to eat, visiting the sick,” Kirsten says. “I think giving and being selfless were things my dad and my aunt learned back then.”
Kirsten, 49, has enjoyed watching Shaw receive “thanks” for her service.
“She’s been excited about it, and that’s unusual because she’s so humble,” Kirsten says. “Of course, she hasn’t volunteered all these years for recognition. She’s just the type of person that sees someone in need or having an emergency, and that’s where her heart goes and her feet follow.”
Kirsten, who works for an advertising agency in Jackson, is following in her footsteps. In two weeks, she will depart for her seventh mission trip to Kenya.
“I’ve gone a few times with my aunt, and that’s been neat experiences,” Kirsten says. “When I go without her, she’s always wanting to know all the details of my trip when I get back.
“I always have trouble explaining why going to Kenya means so much to me. Words don’t do it justice. But it really hits me that you can go halfway around the world, meet people for the first time in a completely different culture, but because you are brothers and sisters in Christ there is an instant connection.”
Shaw understands the meaning of owning a home, the memories it can hold. That’s what fuels her to volunteer at Habitat.
“Our family had a three-bedroom brick house in Indianola when I was growing up,” she says. “I was through there (Indianola) many years later with a group of friends, and I decided to give them a quick tour of my hometown.
“We went by the house and half of it was gone. A huge oak tree had fallen through it during a tornado. I started talking to the person in the next yard, I was telling him, ‘I was born in that house. My brother was born in that house. My mother died in that house.'”
But her thoughts soon turned in a more familiar direction — toward others.
“I was happy to learn that no one was hurt,” she says. “That was the main thing.”
When Shaw was nominated for the lifetime volunteer award, there was no shortage of people weighing in on her worthiness.
“She is the dearest, dearest person — a single lady who has built a life of service, spending all of her time and energy making the world a better place — across our state, and across continents,” wrote Gretchen Cook, editor of Parents & Media and a friend of Shaw’s who has accompanied her on trips to Kenya.
Wrote Dr. Marilyn Graves, a retired pediatrician who attends church with Shaw: “She lives her life doing what Jesus would do. She looks for places to help. She doesn’t sit around and wait for people to ask her to volunteer.”
And what did Shaw say upon hearing she had won?
“I went like this,” she says, pointing at herself. “And I said, ‘Me?’ I’ve never done this for awards or recognition.”
But she was pleased to learn that Elise Winter, wife of former Gov. William Winter, was a previous winner.
“When I heard that,” she says, “I knew I was walking in high cotton — whether I deserve it or not.”