Mary K. Hoodhood speaks at Wheelhouse Talk


GVL / Sydney Lim

Sabrina Rihtarshich, Staff Writer

On Friday, Feb. 17, the Hauenstein Center hosted a Wheelhouse Talk featuring Mary K. Hoodhood, the founder of Kids Food Basket. During this talk, Hoodhood shared how she overcame a significant obstacle through her values and the lessons she was taught, with the help of others. 

Kids Food Basket was founded in 2001. The program was started in response to a story she heard about a five-year-old child who was looking for food to take home in the school cafeteria.

The event opened up with Abby Sachs, the program manager for the Peter C. Cook Leadership Academy, who called Hoodhood’s story “a breath of fresh air.” Sachs said the Peter C. Cook Leadership Academy is lucky to be connected with Hoodhood. 

“Our Wheelhouse Talk speaker series is an opportunity for CLA students and the GVSU community to hear from local leaders, and Mary stands out as someone who has created a legacy – not through her desire to be seen as a leader but as someone who made an impact through living her values,” Sachs said.

Sachs welcomed GVSU senior Emma Loveland to the stage, who has worked with Hoodhood for the past two years as an attendant, helping her in any way she can. Loveland shared a defining moment in Hoodhood’s life.

“Mary was in a car accident when she was 27, leaving her paralyzed,” Loveland said. “Since then, she has been in a wheelchair, so Mary relies on others for help. I am honored to be one of many people who get to assist Mary in doing things we take for granted.”

Loveland then spoke about Kids Food Basket and said that in the beginning, meals were given to around 25 children at three Grand Rapids public schools. Today, 1.6 million meals are given out each year. In addition to this area of work, Hoodhood also advocates for those with disabilities.

“Despite having those daily limitations, Mary has always been able to accomplish what she puts her mind to,” Loveland said. “Her ability to inspire those around her has made Mary K. a leader who prioritizes the needs of those who are often marginalized in society.” 

Before welcoming Hoodhood to the stage, Loveland acknowledged two major accomplishments, one being the Presidential Citizens Medal from Barack Obama Hoodhood was awarded in 2010 and the other being her memoir titled “What I Can Do,” which talks about all of the hardships Hoodhood had to deal with in her lifetime and how she has overcome them. 

Hoodhood started her speech by saying she loves coming to Grand Rapids to talk about Kids Food Basket. She spoke about how much she adored her childhood and how her parents inspired her because they were very involved in their community. 

“In life, we are all dependent on the people around us,” Hoodhood said. “The key is to surround yourself with people that you know you can depend on.”

After her accident, the people she surrounded herself with taught her that peace comes from within. She spoke more about her accident, reflecting on her experience in rehab for three and a half months and explaining how she felt entering this new chapter in her life.

“I’m going to have to come up with a new dream and a new expectation out of life because now I need help with everything that I do,” Hoodhood said.

She then went on to speak about her life after her accident and how she struggled with her self-esteem afterward because of it.

“I had no self-esteem,” Hoodhood said. “If you would have asked me then to come up on and speak on this stage there is no way that I would have done it.”

Following this, the speech shifted to the topic of leadership. She referred to the audience as “future leaders” but said she never really thought she was one herself.

“I don’t really even frame myself as a leader,” Hoodhood said. “I know I am because I know I’ve done some stuff, but I do understand that I lead by example. In my mind, I know what to do, and I do it, and I explain to other people how they can help do it too. If that’s what being a leader is, then I guess I am one.” 

Hoodhood ended with talking about the Presidential Citizens Medal she received from Obama and had Loveland read the proclamation. 

“Physical limitations have never hindered Mary K. Hoodhoods determination to serve her community,” Loveland read. “Though a car accident left her paralyzed, she began volunteering to feed the hungry through her local Meals on Wheels Program. In 2001 she founded Kids Food Basket, which provides meals for thousands of children in the Grand Rapids Michigan area. The United States honors Mary K. Hoodhood for her remarkable efforts to nourish our nation’s children.”

Sachs said she hopes students left the event thinking about the small things they can do within their communities to make a difference. 

“The problems of the world can seem overwhelming, but Mary’s message of focusing on, ‘What I can do?’ is a fantastic reminder that if we can make the world better for even one person, we are community leaders,” Sachs said.