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story.lead_photo.caption Marylyn DeFeo is the volunteer executive director at the Samaritan Center in Jefferson City. Photo by Mikala Compton / News Tribune.

Jefferson City's Samaritan Center has been helping people for 30 years.

And Marylyn DeFeo, now 80, has been its head since the beginning in 1986.

"I'm amazed" at its growth, she said. "To me, it is just a signal of what God wants in this community. It wouldn't be here without the people of God."

The service began at Immaculate Conception Church as an aid to people who were seeking help.

"I turned out to be the 'visiting grandma,' if you will," DeFeo said, "to help women who didn't have a clue about cleaning an oven or taking care of their kids, how to shop or put a nutritious meal together on a budget."

In 1999, the center moved from a small space at IC to a new building on East McCarty Street, on land donated by the late Jack Clark, who owned what now is Warehouse Tire.

"It's way too small, now," DeFeo said, noting there is enough land to build more space for the center — a need to be filled when money is available.

The Samaritan Center is not a United Way agency — but often works with the United Way to provide services its agencies don't.

The center began as part of the response to a challenge from then-Bishop Michael McAuliffe, head of the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City, "who had formed this group of agencies within the church to take care of the people," DeFeo said.

It grew to include other parishes in the city and the area.

A year later, DeFeo sent letters to Protestant churches to see if they also would support the mission, "because, I said, the poor don't just belong to Catholics, so let's work together."

The now-interfaith agency gets support from non-Christians as well.

"I have 600-plus volunteers who run through here every week in different areas," she said.

In addition to providing food for needy families, the Samaritan Center offers legal services, a medical clinic, some dental services and help with paying utility bills.

DeFeo graduated from high school in Kansas City in 1954, then attended college for three years — then left college after marrying Lou DeFeo, whom she'd met during her freshman year.

"We got married after he graduated from college," she recalled, "and then he went on to law school."

They moved to Jefferson City in the early 1960s, when Lou DeFeo got a job as an assistant attorney general, expecting to stay only a few years before going back to Kansas City.

But they never left.

They eventually had seven children, who kept her involved in numerous activities.

"We had five boys and two girls, so I was a (Cub Scout) Den Mother a lot," DeFeo said. "I was a Girl Scout leader (and) went on to be the diocesan leader for the Girl Scouts."

The DeFeos now have 38 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

She also worked with Birthright and the St. Mary's Hospital Auxiliary, including leadership of the Ice Cream Social and Spaghetti Dinner.

DeFeo always has been the Samaritan Center's director on a volunteer basis.

"I didn't need the money. My husband made enough money for us. I didn't need it, so I'd rather the poor have it."

However, DeFeo expects her successor will be paid, as other administrators now are.

Her son, Ben DeFeo, is the current deputy director.

"Ben was 10 years old when I started this (and) grew up in it," she said. "I'm sure he could go somewhere else and make lots more money — but this is what he wants to do."

She's cut back to working about half-time — but still doesn't know when she'll "retire."

"My only regret is, I wish I had a mountain of money, so we could say 'yes' more often," DeFeo said.

Q. Who has invested in you and your career?

A. "This whole community. I couldn't do it without all the people with such caring hearts in Jefferson City. I have never lived anywhere where people are so generous."

Q. What choices have you made to invest in yourself and your success?

A. "It's been a pleasure. I have not had a day when I did not want to come to work. I just have enjoyed it so much — and I thank my grandparents and my parents for planting seeds of generosity in me. I don't think I'm any more generous than the next guy — I just do what I can do."

Q. Of what professional achievement are you most proud?

A. "This (the Samaritan Center). Well, first, I'd have to say, are my marriage and my children. I'm just so proud of my kids — we gave them all the tools to do well, and they do well. I have attorneys, business people, accountants, teachers and architects. My kids do great things."

Q. What do you see as the biggest issues facing women in the workplace?

A. "I think they have made great strides. When I was in high school and my first job was typing at the Jackson County Courthouse, the gentleman who was overseeing us would ring a bell, and we had 10 minutes to go the bathroom — and then you were done until you went to lunch for 45 minutes. You'd go out in the hall, and all the guys were talking and having a good time, but the girls, the women, had to be quiet. I think there has been more acceptance of women in the workplace (now). (But), if you're a steel hand in a velvet glove, you get further. I think we're always going to have the, 'You're a woman' difference."

Q. What drives you most in life and in your career?

A. "I think the children (we serve). That is what we work for. The next generation is going to be what America is — and if we don't take care of those kids, and give them the right tools and give them the right nutrition — and give them whatever we can and tell them they're worthwhile beings instead of shoving them down all the time."

Q. What advice would you give to a woman entering the workforce?

A. "Bad manners are bad manners, and that's all there is to it. What you display to other people is either a good you or a bad you. Have enough self-esteem about yourself. Behave. Pull up your britches and cover up your bosom. Take off your hoodie. I just think that, if we get back to just respecting one another, we wouldn't have a problem."

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