Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow thought of settling his international charity's roots in Miami before a chance meeting with Patty Decker in March 2010, arranged through the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal at Most Blessed Sacrament on Newark's 13th Street, helped the Scotland-based Mary's Meals establish its American foothold in Essex County.
“My friar friend said come and meet him,” Decker recalled. “(MacFarlane-Barrow) said, 'We're thinking of relocating.' He felt Newark was a better place. It's a direct flight from Scotland and with the history of Newark, he thought it would be a better fit.”
Within six months, Decker, 50, began Mary's Meals USA out of her Bloomfield apartment before St. Antoninus R.C. Church in Newark donated its basement as a makeshift office this March. In each location, her mission remained the same: expanding the awareness of the organization's quest to attract poor children to classrooms in impoverished nations so they can receive a meal – and hopefully a path to avoid further poverty in their future.
“The theory is to give the meal in school. And the meal will attract the child to school … it's so important that the two go together,” Decker said.
Mary's Meals (originally known as Scottish International Relief) was born in 2002 from MacFarlane-Barrow's belief that each child receive at least one school meal a day. Since then, it has benefited more than 530,000 children in 16 countries worldwide, from Albania to Haiti to Zambia, which made the founder a finalist for the 2010 CNN Heroes Award and eventually earned his cause $25,000.
Just as MacFarlane-Barrow began his operation out of a shed, Decker – a 1978 graduate of Maplewood High School who has lived in Bloomfield most of the past 29 years – operates out of a spartan office in St. Antoninus' basement with her own laptop, a chair, a computer table, a file cabinet and a donated fax machine.
“It's a little damp, but that's the way we do things with Mary's Meals,” Decker said with a chuckle. “I don't like to spend any money unless it's absolutely necessary. When you think that $10 could feed a child, you want it to go where it's needed.”
After working for 12 years at Sikora's Religious Articles & Church Goods in Passaic, Mary's Meals has become her life's work. Other than a part-time bookkeeper, Decker has only a few local volunteers at her disposal while trying to ensure that all donations are swiftly forwarded to areas of need; Malawi has been a recent target. She has even traveled to Haiti to assess how Mary's Meals could offer assistance.
Through active outreach that has included trips to Iowa and Ohio – she has stayed in friaries or guest rooms to avoid spending money on hotel rooms – Decker has helped Mary's Meals USA raise more than $100,000. While the average cost of feeding a child for a year is $15, a donation of $10 is all that is needed to feed a child in Malawi for 365 days.
To this end, Decker helped recruit the senior youth group at her parish, Bloomfield's St. John the Apostle, who held a fundraiser that culled $10,000. Meanwhile, a friend who serves as a youth minister in Williamstown held “Soup Bowl Sunday” which garnered more than $4,000 from worth of funds collected in giant soup pots.
Moving forward, Decker hopes to accumulate more volunteers and attract more attention to Mary's Meals, which holds annual awareness events including World Porridge Day, which is Oct. 11 this year.
“It's challenging. But I really do believe in it and feel privileged to be part of it,” Decker said. “It's making a difference in the world and who doesn't want to do that?”