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Turning Tragedy into Triumph: Mary Nelson's Unwavering Mission for Syracuse's Youth

Turning Tragedy into Triumph: Mary Nelson's Unwavering Mission for Syracuse's Youth

In the wake of a personal tragedy in 2002, Mary Nelson decided to take action against neighborhood violence plaguing her hometown of Syracuse, NY. It began with the devastating loss of her nephew to gun violence. Despite being bedridden and unable to walk, her nephew never lost hope or faith, and his love for his family remained unwavering. Mary fondly recalls a Mother's Day weekend when her nephew, despite his condition, insisted on giving her a gift. Seeing him sitting up with a smile on his face was the best gift she could have ever received.  

In an incredible act of forgiveness, Mary's nephew forgave his best friend, who, while on drugs, had shot him. A young woman years later, reached out to Mary revealed that her father was the one responsible for her nephew's death. In their emotional conversation, Mary conveyed that her nephew had already forgiven the young man, and that her family loved him too. She asked the young woman to relay this message to her father.  

Mary, nephew Darryl death led to the creation of Mary's annual backpack giveaway, which began a month and half after losing her nephew to complications from being shot in June 2021, in which he passed a year later June 4, 2002. Around the time when her nephew lost his life, Mary intervened with a young man who was running from the police, he shared with her, he was selling drugs to make money for college textbooks.   Mary connected him with a program called On Point for College, which helped him secure the resources he needed for school. He went on to earn a liberal arts degree at Mooresville College.  

In the face of adversity, Mary Nelson found inspiration and purpose. Following her own experience of helping a young man secure resources for college, Mary reached out to the mayor and local leaders, proposing a program to support children with their school needs. In August 2002, her first annual back-to-school event attracted 850 children and their parents. Since then, her initiative has expanded, assisting over 21,600 kids with school supplies, clothing, and other essentials.  

The event has evolved from merely distributing backpacks and supplies to providing groceries, household items, clothing, and educational services, and now most recently partnered with Amazon, and even offers free medical services like breast cancer screenings and pregnancy screening and dental cleanings at our Annual Event in August. In recognition of her efforts, Mary received the Post-Standard Achievement Award in 2008.  

A serendipitous turn of events led to Mary's selection for a "Mom's Dream Come True" award on the Regis and Kelly show. Out of 10,000 applicants, she was one of the five chosen, receiving a $50,000 prize. This financial windfall allowed Mary to pay her family's bills and pursue her dream of creating a large facility in Syracuse.  

Despite her grand vision, Mary had to start small. After renting a building for a year and a half, she found herself unable to afford the rent. Catholic Charities shared her story, which caught the attention of a sponsor from SUN Chevrolet, and owner Todd Caputo and LYNN Law firm that had previously assisted her family. Thanks to their help, Mary acquired the building, and her center became sustainable.  

Never anticipating the journey, she was about to embark upon, Mary's initial intention was simply to provide backpacks for children and ensure they stayed in school. She came from a family with strong values, raised by a mother who was an educator and demanded excellence from her children. As she grew older, Mary realized the importance of these values.  

Tragedy struck Mary's life repeatedly, with the loss of her nephew, father, mother, and brother to another act of senseless gun violence. In the face of such heartache, Mary and her remaining sister vowed to stick together.  

In August 2017, Mary received a phone call from her sister that was abruptly cut short. Later that day, Mary's son called, screaming on the phone; her sister had been found dead, in her home, to this day she always wondered was her baby sister was reaching out for help, her phone call was the last one she had made that day. Although the pain from the past sometimes resurfaced, Mary found solace in her center. Surrounded by the families she supported and loved so dearly; their presence fueled her determination to keep going.  

In a significant moment of her life, Mary had the incredible opportunity to meet Oprah Winfrey. In September 2014, before losing her brother she attended Oprah's Life You Want weekend, in New Jersey. Previously, in 2007, Mary had tried to participate in the Oprah Winfrey Show but missed it due to a breaking news story.  

During the Life You Want weekend, Mary connected with a woman from Brooklyn who was determined to ensure Oprah knew about Mary's work. Although they saw some familiar faces from the Oprah Winfrey Show, Mary doubted they would remember her. To her surprise, Oprah had been following Mary and her work closely.  

At the VIP reception, Oprah recognized Mary and announced that she will be attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Syracuse, and she will be visiting the Mary Nelson Center in Syracuse, New York. This heartfelt encounter inspired Mary to persist in her work, supporting the children and families in her community.  

Looking to the future, Mary envisions creating a Transitional Living Center as the next step for her current center. She plans to purchase the adjacent lot and expand the facility to provide a safe space for youth returning from detention or experiencing homelessness. The expansion would feature a larger cafeteria, a movie room, and accommodations that evoke a homely atmosphere.  

Mary's ultimate goal is to give these children a chance at life and to prevent them from feeling trapped or hopeless. She firmly believes that with faith, people can triumph over difficult circumstances and find forgiveness.  

Her advice for mothers and women experiencing challenging times is to openly discuss their struggles and seek assistance when necessary. She believes that numerous resources are and should be available, including food pantries and support groups, in which she represent New York State as a Lead for Voices of Black Mothers United, mothers who have lost their children to violence, Mary emphasizes, the name of the group is not focusing on one set of mom’s it is for all mothers, no matter what race, and the important of communication, and being able to listen, and not just to respond.    

She insists that everyone must take responsibility for addressing issues like youth violence and poverty. Mary believes that providing resources and asking questions can make a significant difference in young people's lives. She highlights the increasing number of young victims and urges everyone to become more involved, considering each other's struggles as a collective responsibility.  

Mary shares stories of young lives lost and calls for a change in how people approach these problems. She recommends that everyone unite and provide support, emphasizing that it's the collective responsibility of the community to assist and safeguard each other.   

We kindly ask for your donation to help Mary expand the center and continue providing a safe and supportive space for youth in the community. Your contribution will go directly towards funding programs and resources that positively impact the lives of young people in Syracuse, New York. Please visit The Mary Nelson's Youth Center website to make a donation today. Thank you for your support!  

The Editorial Team

The Editorial Team

Hi there, we're the editorial team at WomELLE. We offer resources for business and career success, promote early education and development, and create a supportive environment for women. Our magazine, "WomLEAD," is here to help you thrive both professionally and personally.

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