Saturday, October 01, 2005

Giving Back to the Community

One of Marissa Wiley’s favorite restaurants is a local Soul Food restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper Westside. For our conversation, we returned to a familiar haunting ground, Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too, Southern Cuisine, on West 110.

While we poured over the menu, we caught up on each other’s lives. The waiter interrupted to take our order. Marissa chose the smothered chicken, candied yams, and string beans. The meat loaf, collard greens, and potato salad seemed to dance off the page. The contents of her oversized purse were unloaded onto the rickety table supported by a matchbook. The waiter arrived and stood at a distance, the hearty, pepper-laced entrees in hand, as Marissa cleared the table back into her purse. Our chat was temporarily delayed by clanking silverware, boisterous laughter and conversation in the quaint restaurant.

This thirty-two year-old single mother is a natural caretaker and nurturer. In 1990, she began volunteering with Habitat for Humanity one weekend a month. In contrast to her major of Speech Pathology at NYU, she helped homesteaders build their apartments. “Seeing a smile on the face of a father carrying his wife over the threshold made what I did worthwhile. I can’t stand selfish people. We all have to do our part.”

She continued her path to Volunteerism with an eight-month stay at Safespace, a homeless shelter for teenagers, and a two-year stint as a mentor with The Visiting Nurse Service of New York. The next stop was The Visiting Nurse Service of New York Hospice Program for about four years, during which time she made home visits to elderly and AIDS patients until they died.

Marissa is currently taking a break from volunteering. “If I could do it over, I would finish school all at once instead of letting my family get in the way. Now there’s Nia, work, and school. My priorities have changed.”

Marissa was born and raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, NY. The family later relocated to the Bronx. Rissa, as family and close friends know her, does not like to talk about her divorce. “I was too young when we got married. He was too domineering and possessive. We are learning to be friends now.” There was something childlike in the way she coiled her corkscrew curls around her left ear as she reflected on her past. When speaking of her mother, her voice was a mixture of love and resentment. “I can’t blame her for getting Cancer. It robbed her strength and made me question my faith.”

A jangle of keys with a clear acrylic picture holder contained a photo of her three-month old daughter, Nia. The photo resembled a smooth-skinned black baby doll recently introduced in toy stores. “I wanted to have a baby, and didn’t want to wait until I was an old maid,” she said in a voice that carried a built-in intimacy. As she stretched and pushed the hair away from her face, she revealed a long forgotten scar on her forehead. “I got this when my mother returned home early. I hid underneath her bed. I cut myself on a metal file box when I was twelve.”

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