What does Tom Douglas have in Common with Homeless Women and Children?

Douglas_Tom_small
March 5, 2012

Image: Chef and restaurateur Tom Douglas, along with his Pastry Chef Stacy Fortner, visit Mary’s Place for a community breakfast with council member Jean Godden.

Stories — that’s what I always want to hear. And hear them I did on a recent Wednesday morning at Mary’s Place.

Mary’s Place is a day shelter for women and children. In fact, it is the only day center in King County that accepts homeless women with children. It holds a monthly breakfast and invites community members to attend.

On the overcast April morning when I showed up, there were about 70 women and children assembled at the Belltown shelter, breakfasting on coffee, fruit, and pastries. The sweets — buttery croissants and savvy muffins — were treats from the Dahlia Bakery, donated by superchef Tom Douglas. When I arrived, I was taken on a tour of the welcoming shelter. The facility has two bathrooms where homeless women can shower and do their laundry. There’s a room where young children can play and there are staff members and volunteers who help women find scarce transitional housing.

One of the first stories that I heard was told by our volunteer tour guide. She said her church had just adopted a new Palm Sunday tradition. “We usually carry palm fronds and place them on the floor by the altar. This Sunday,” she said, “we covered the floor with coats. Then we collected the coats for Mary’s Place. They’re over there, hanging on a rack by the door. Anyone needing a coat can take one.” Mary’s Place is like that, a loving community where you feel instantly at home.

I toured the kitchen and, there, of course, was Tom Douglas himself, a giant teddy bear of a man, making sure that there were enough baked goods for the multitudes — nearly 100 women and visitors. Shortly afterward, around 8:30 a.m., Executive Director Marty Hartman welcomed us to the monthly breakfast and invited the women there to tell stories about how they’d come to Mary’s Place to help regain control over their lives and move forward. The stories were touching — a woman who was conquering drug abuse, a second woman who had escaped domestic abuse, and a third who was recovering from misfortune and illness. All three said that at Mary’s Place they felt safe and comfortable and discovered resources to find housing and financial aid.

When my turn came to tell something of my story, I talked about how I’d written about Mary’s Place when I was a reporter. But I was also able to introduce Douglas, who has been such a great supporter. It had been my privilege to write about Tom ever since his days as a chef at Café Sport at Pike Place Market.

One of the greatest stories from this period, one I’ve never shared before, concerned a fundraiser at Seattle Central Community College. Douglas was getting an award, one citing his work with the culinary program. During the dinner, he wandered off and ended up in the kitchen. When he returned, he said, “These kids are cooking with a terrible mismatched set of pans.” With that, he passed a dented pot and those of us in attendance filled it with enough bills to buy the apprentice cooks a new set of cookware. It was a magnificent, unforgettable gesture; one that, you could say, gives new meaning to the term “panhandler.”

Like Tom, many of us feel as if we should take up panhandling on behalf of those in need. At Mary’s Place, there are many needs. And, although there are no dented pots to fill, we could contribute some of the following: bras and underwear (new or gently used), socks (black especially), pajamas and slippers, feminine hygiene needs, shampoo and manicure sets, coffee gift cards, and cans of hot cocoa mix. Donations of cash, too, of course, are welcome. We can all help write new endings to the stories that they tell at Mary’s Place.