Community Spotlight: Mary Ann Zaggy

 In Blog
Toiletry Drives

Mary Ann Zaggy organizing toiletry items at a donation drive in University City.

Mary Zaggy’s lifelong interest immigration has played out in many ways—including an international adoption of a daughter from Guatemala. But two and a half years ago it led her to someplace very unexpected: the rough-and-tumble St. Louis neighborhood along Hodiamont Avenue.

Hodiamont is a hub for newcomers from other countries thanks to its inexpensive housing. Welcome Neighbor has an active presence there, helping refugees and other immigrants find their footing yet still maintain a sense of autonomy and dignity. One of Mary’s earliest projects was delivering donated toiletries. Over the next few months, she became acquainted with several Somali residents and learned their stories. That prompted her to deepen her relationship with two families in particular.

One is headed by a husband and wife, Abdi and Adey. They fled Somalia for Kenya roughly two decades ago and spent 18 years in refugee camps in Kenya. Circumstances there were bleak—they were seldom allowed to leave the camps, and education was scarce. After arriving in America, they needed to re-learn many of the basics of self-sufficiency.

Three of Abdi and Adey’s boys on the day Mary Ann Zaggy and volunteers brought them new bikes and helmets.

Mary Ann Zaggy helped Halima’s family to receive a freezer May 2019 which has been a huge help so that meals can be frozen and reheated her for her 6 children while she is at work. Halima’s husband is still in Uganda and has not been granted permission to join his family in the U.S.

The second household is headed by a woman named Halima, who lives here with her six children while her husband is in Uganda. She was also in a Kenyan refugee camp, but because she spoke Kenyan, she was able to pursue opportunities outside the camp, and that contributed to her level of resourcefulness since moving to St. Louis.

Mary gets to know each person, taking the time to understand their strengths as well as the realities of their daily life, which is sometimes hardscrabble and sometimes filled with lovely gestures of solidarity and hope. This helps her provide specific mentoring and support, from material goods to assistance with paperwork to English tutoring. One of her current students is a woman from Congo named Nadine who had been a factory worker but now puts her sewing skills to profitable use as a tailor at a clothing store. “She’s a phenomenal seamstress who wants to improve her English, then maybe go into business for herself someday,” Mary says.

One goal that’s first and foremost in Mary’s mind is to assist the families in becoming economically stable enough to move into safer neighborhoods. But the road to this milestone looks very different for everyone.

“At first I had no idea how to help specifically,” says the retired speech pathologist. She feels her willingness to learn from the families has benefitted both her and them. “You get so much out of it,” she says. “These people are amazingly strong and smart and resilient, and I don’t even know half their stories.”

To sign up to volunteer with Welcome Neighbor STL, please complete our online request form or contact Jessica Bueler via email at [email protected]


About Amy De La Hunt

Amy is an editorial consultant and writer who lives in St. Louis with her two sons and their five backyard chickens. She became interested in immigrants’ experiences after living in Germany, and she continues to enjoy exploring new cultures and countries – and especially foods. More information and links to Amy’s work can be found online at delahunt.net and on Instagram at @amy_in_words

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