A mother's love isn't always confined to her children.
To be sure, Mary Ann Wright — fondly known throughout the community as Mother Wright — had an abundance of love for her own large family.
But her mothering was expansive, reaching far beyond blood lines to thousands of hungry and needy people during the past three decades. She distributed huge quantities of food, clothing and toys each holiday season from a West Oakland warehouse and helped those in need nearly every day of the week.
Wright, who had been struggling with heart trouble for several years, died Thursday in Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley, one of her daughters said Friday. Wright was 87.
"She was in the hospital, but we weren't expecting this," said daughter Carol Wright Barnes, her voice trembling. "She'd been doing fine."
Through the Mary Ann Wright Foundation, Wright, family members and numerous volunteers regularly collected food and clothing from various businesses and other donors to distribute to the needy.
Despite frail health in the past few months, Wright continued her active schedule, usually arriving in the foundation's office at 6 a.m. with her unquenchable spirit and stamina.
"I am deeply saddened by the passing of my friend and community activist Mother Mary Ann Wright," Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, said in a statement Friday. Calling Wright "Oakland's Mother Teresa," Lee said Wright's giving spirit "transcended the city of Oakland. She traveled across the globe "... to feed the hungry and nurture the poor."
"She's been the angel to the hungry for many, many years," said Oakland City Councilmember Nancy Nadel, who volunteered with Wright to distribute food on several Thanksgivings. "Her brand of care and generosity is certainly going to be needed now more than ever, so I hope her good work can continue with her foundation."
Mayor Ron Dellums said, "Every Oakland resident who believes in benevolent kindness mourns the passing of Mary Ann Wright — a courageous woman who devoted her life to helping others. ... The most fitting way to honor her memory is to continue the work she advanced and take it upon ourselves to help those within our community who are less fortunate."
"She has given her whole heart and soul to this foundation," her daughter Joel Wright said in a previous interview. "She has helped so many people, not just in the Bay Area but worldwide."
Wright has been recognized numerous times, locally and nationally. In 2005, she was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Caring Americans in Washington, D.C. She has also provided help to people in Russia, Vietnam and Kenya, where her organization built a school many years ago.
And though she met Bill Cosby and Aretha Franklin, and was invited to more than one presidential inauguration, she remained ever modest.
"There's so much work to do," Wright said in a 2007 interview with the Oakland Tribune. She said God told her in a dream one night in 1980 to feed the hungry.
"I woke up screaming that night and never went back to sleep," she said. "How could I go back to sleep under my warm blankets when my sisters and brothers were out there lying under the bridges and places with nowhere to go?"
Wright had known need herself. She grew up poor in Louisiana and lost her mother when she was only 5 years old. In 1950 she fled an abusive husband and took her children by train to Oakland where other relatives lived.
She picked cotton, walnuts and strawberries in the East Bay and around the state, and also worked nights in a San Leandro cannery to make ends meet. She eventually married again and ended up with 12 children.
When she was "called" to feed the hungry, she started out as best she could, using her $236 Social Security check to buy food for a weekly dinner in Jefferson Park.
She expanded to other areas of town, trudging beneath overpasses to deliver meals "with dignity," she said, even spreading out table cloths and wrapping forks in napkins.
In recent years, the foundation's warehouse on San Pablo Avenue at 32nd Street has been her main distribution center. At the holidays, long lines always formed outside with Wright often on the sidewalk, bullhorn in hand, leading a prayer as people picked up bags of boxed and canned food, toys and Christmas trees.
"It's a miracle," she said of her life's path. "I'll be here until the Lord comes for me."
Wright is survived by 10 children, 33 grandchildren and 37 great-grandchildren. She was preceded in death by two sons. Services have not been announced.
Reach Angela Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
staff file photos
Mary Ann "Mother" Wright, of Oakland, was known for her giving soul. At top, Wright talks to a small boy at her warehouse on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland in 1998.