Food bank leader -- mother of Sean Hayes -- recalled for her dedication

 
 
Updated 1/27/2018 8:39 AM
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  • Mary Hayes of Glen Ellyn was the first employee of Northern Illinois Food Bank when it got its start in 1983 as Bethlehem Center. She went on to a 25-year career with the nonprofit food assistance agency while raising five kids as a single mother. Hayes died Wednesday. She was 78.

    Mary Hayes of Glen Ellyn was the first employee of Northern Illinois Food Bank when it got its start in 1983 as Bethlehem Center. She went on to a 25-year career with the nonprofit food assistance agency while raising five kids as a single mother. Hayes died Wednesday. She was 78. Courtesy of Northern Illinois Food Bank

There's an image of Mary Hayes of Glen Ellyn driving around the suburbs in her white Nissan in the summer of 1999, trunk full of coolers, delivering sandwiches, milk and fresh fruit to hungry kids.

That's the image that remains, even after her death Wednesday at age 78, in the minds of Hayes' co-workers and beneficiaries at the Northern Illinois Food Bank, where she worked from 1983 to 2008 as its first employee.

Hayes, a single mother of five children, including "Will & Grace" actor Sean Hayes, had a clear love of helping people, and she directed that positive energy toward serving the hungry. Those who knew her said Hayes was delivery driver, cheerleader, trust-builder and more for the food assistance agency that became her life's work.

"It was easy to be inspired by Mary because she was filled with passion for helping people, and in particular those people who needed food," said former food bank Executive Director Dennis Smith, who worked with Hayes for years after joining the organization in 1999. "People certainly trusted Mary for her commitment and passion, and then they started to trust the food bank that we would indeed deliver on our commitments."

When Hayes joined what now is a major food resource serving 13 Illinois counties, it was a tiny pantry in DuPage County called Bethlehem Center and was staffed only by its founder, Sister Rosemarie Burian.

"Mary kept the place glued together over its early years," Smith said.

Soon, the pantry served 10 counties as an affiliate of America's Second Harvest, now called Feeding America. But longtime co-worker Steve Ericson, director of food procurement, said Hayes kept the focus personal.

"She never let me lose sight of who we were serving and why we were serving them," Ericson said. Her philosophy was, "Let's never get too big for the people we're trying to help."

As Hayes' children grew up, she got them involved, too. Her son Kevin helped with printing and creative materials, Smith said. And her son Sean used his comedy skills to promote the pantry, speaking at its donor recognition dinner in 2004.

While she worked with an all-hands-on-deck attitude, she also lived with humor and a love for Irish dancing.

Her summer drives around the suburbs brought food to 50 children a week in Villa Park, West Chicago and Aurora while school was out. Her work to start a backpack program gave other hungry kids and their families food for the weekends.

Those programs now serve a combined 822,000 meals to kids each year, contributing to the food bank's work to provide 65.5 million total meals a year.

By the time Hayes retired to spend more time with her children and nine grandchildren, Ericson said she had made her mark and left a foundation for future growth.

"I'm glad I'm still around to see some of those dreams come to fruition that Mary helped formulate," he said.

Family will celebrate Hayes' life with a prayer service at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Queen of Heaven Cemetery Chapel, 1400 S. Wolf Road, Hillside. Instead of flowers, donations can be made to Northern Illinois Food Bank, 273 Dearborn Court, Geneva.

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