Originally reported on December 8, 2014
By Lauren Sinatra, Ray Marek and Veronica Wheelock SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC NEWS) – Mary Nelson made a decision in 2002. Her nephew, Darryl Patterson, was shot and killed, and Nelson knew there was a need for change in the city of Syracuse. She recognized the effects of violence and poverty on the community, and she wanted to find a way to help underprivileged children get off the streets.
Later that year, Nelson hosted her first Youth Day Barbecue, which attracted 850 people. She advertised the event by posting flyers on car windows and around the community. At the barbecue, she and her volunteers gave students backpacks full of school supplies for the new school year, and families were treated to a home-cooked, barbecue meal.
Nelson’s mission has always been to help give back to the community, so when she heard that her idol, Oprah Winfrey, was airing a Give Back show in Chicago in 2008, she knew she could not pass up the opportunity.
When Nelson arrived in Chicago, however, she learned that the Give Back show had been postponed to another date. Instead, the show Mary got to watch was about two kidnapped boys who had been missing for 13 years in Missouri and had just been found. Despite the unexpected change, Nelson was still grateful she made the trip.
“I took away from that show: what can I come back to my city and do more of? Save kids. Save kids,” Nelson said.
A year later, in 2009, the Mary Nelson Youth Center opened on the South Side of Syracuse.
A Big Brother
A few years ago, Todd Caputo, also known in the Central New York area as the “Used Car King,” heard about Nelson and the work she did for the community. He decided to attend one of her barbecues. Caputo met Nelson and paid a visit to the center, which is when he realized he wanted to get involved.
Caputo found out that Nelson was renting the building for the Youth Center, and was paying for everything out of pocket. The center is run completely by volunteers, since Nelson works full time in the radiology department at Upstate University Hospital.
“She told me about how she was having a tough time paying her bills. She was renting from Catholic Charities…I worked with [them] and negotiated a price, and eventually bought the building for her,” Caputo said.
Since Caputo bought the center for $20,000, Nelson only has to pay her taxes, which amounts to $82 every three months.
“I love that man…he is like a big brother to me, you know? He’s taught me a lot,” Nelson said.
Throughout the years, Caputo has helped Nelson whenever she has needed it, including donating Wal-Mart gift cards to pay for school supplies, food, and other items for the center. The first time Caputo gave Nelson gift cards, she went to pick them up and the Wal-Mart employee looked at her with teary eyes.
“I [thought] it was going to be $100 or $200 gift cards. This man had given me five $1,000 gift cards,” Nelson said.
On top of his generous donations to the center, Caputo runs an online donation website where people can give items away to approved charities instead of throwing them away or selling them. Nelson has used the website for a long time to fill her center. She has received donations such as flat screen televisions and couches, as well as smaller items, like books and movies.
The Mary Nelson Youth Center
797 children have walked through the door of the Youth Center in the past five years. Mary Nelson knows the exact number. During the week, about 30 kids are in the center at any given time. The children come for after school care, which includes tutoring, computer time, meals, reading, and watching educational films. Through these films, Nelson teaches the importance of nonjudgmental thinking and stresses tolerance when it comes to violence.
“After one movie, a little boy said, ‘Ms. Nelson, Ms. Nelson, I want to be a police officer,’ and I asked why. He said, ‘I can protect people, not because I have a gun in my hand, but because I can just protect them,’ and that’s exactly what I wanted to hear,” Nelson explained.
Not only does she help children; Nelson’s center is a safe haven for people struggling with addiction and families who are going through hard times. Although she does offer a range of services, Nelson has a strict schedule and system when it comes to programs at the Youth Center.
After years of running the center, Nelson began to realize the impact it has had on the community and the children who use it. With Oprah’s show as the inspiration for the center, Nelson wanted Oprah to see the work she had done.
Many people doubted Nelson in her attempt to get Oprah to come to the center, but as a strong-minded person who always followed her heart, she knew she would find a way.
“I was told, ‘She will never come down here; you are just dreaming,’ but when you believe in something, you believe in yourself,” Nelson said.
On September 26, 2014, Nelson made a trip to New Jersey to attend Oprah’s The Life You Want event. She brought an article about herself and the center, and was planning to give it to Oprah.
Nelson panicked when she realized she lost the article the day of the event and thought she had lost all hope of letting Oprah know her story. But while waiting in the VIP line to meet Oprah, Nelson had an eye-opening experience.
“A lady was standing beside me. She said, ‘Are you Mary Nelson?’, and I just nodded my head, a little confused,” Nelson explained. “She said, ‘We know all about you.’”
The lady introduced herself as Oprah’s communications assistant, Chelsea.
When it was finally Nelson’s turn, she walked in and hugged her idol. As Oprah hugged her back, she said she was coming to Syracuse. Nelson already knew that she was coming to the University, but then Oprah added, “I am coming to see you.”
Oprah Comes to Syracuse
On September 29, 2014, Oprah Winfrey came to Central New York for the dedication of the new studios at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. After the dedication ceremony, Oprah made the promised visit to Mary Nelson’s Youth Center, which was a surprise to everyone in the community – except for Nelson.
After touring the center, and talking with Nelson about her dreams for the future, Oprah went back to her car. Many people thought she was leaving, but Oprah was just getting her checkbook. She wrote a check for $100,000 made out to Mary Nelson, which Nelson told Oprah she would use to build a basketball court in the vacant lot next to the center.
“Don’t you dare give them all that money for that basketball court. You will get that a lot cheaper than that,” Oprah advised. “Don’t you dare.”
Since then, Nelson has teamed up with Abundant Life Christian Center, which will lead the construction of the court. Nelson plans to open the court by June of 2015. She has put the rest of the money in a savings account.
The Start of an Empire
Nelson still kicks off every school year with the Youth Day Barbecue. In 2013, the event attracted more than 21,000 people. On top of this, Nelson has even more dreams for the future, and she is just getting started.
“This is Mary Nelson. This is my foundation. I [have] to make sure this is solid so I can build up. I’m working on Mary Nelson,” Nelson stated with a smile. “I’m going to take my time. You don’t build an empire in 2.5 seconds. It takes time to build an empire.”
In the next two years, she plans on buying the buildings next to the Youth Center, including the Salina Shoe Salon.
“I want to buy that shoe store and build a “Boys Hope, Girls Hope Home” homeless shelter. Right now, we have 900 kids living homeless in Syracuse walking the streets,” Nelson said. “I don’t want to see my kids walking the streets. I am tired of seeing my kids die of the violence.”
Nelson also hosts her Beyond the Dream: Black Tie Gala. At the gala, Nelson honors leaders in charity, medicine and sports in Syracuse, which includes people like the Boeheim family, and even Todd Caputo. She also awards merit -based scholarships to college-bound students. Nelson plans to have another gala this coming year. The gala will be September 26, 2015, exactly a year after Oprah told Nelson she was coming to Syracuse.
“I am hoping and praying that [Oprah] will be back for my black tie affair. I want her to come back because it means so much to me; the day I met her the first time,” Nelson said. “She doesn’t just touch your life and walk out.”
And Nelson may have those hopes and prayers answered. When Oprah left the Youth Center in September, she rolled down the window of her car, looked back at Nelson and said, “I’m not done with you yet,” with a wink.