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Homeless advocate enlists students


As Bea Gaddy delivered her message of volunteerism to students and teachers at Harford Community College last week, you could almost imagine the homeless advocate being played in a movie by Cicely Tyson, Whoopi Goldberg or Tina Turner.

She has been approached by several Hollywood producers, including Barry Levinson and John Waters, to put her life on the big screen, and those are the actresses being discussed to play the Baltimore-based activist.

It's no wonder. Her story is the stuff of legends.

She's been poor and hungry. She's been a single mother. She's been on welfare.

Over the years, Ms. Gaddy has conquered her poverty and founded a food shelter that has expanded into a conglomeration of services for the indigent.

She's often been referred to as the "Mother Teresa of Baltimore."

"All of the hurts can make you grow," Ms. Gaddy said to her audience of about 70 Tuesday.

Energetically pacing across a campus theater stage -- "I won't stand behind the podium because I'm too short" -- she's funny, dramatic, focused and earnest.

She urged the group to "treat people like you want to be treated."

"You don't know what minute or hour you might fall," she warned.

"Give your brain a chance, and you can be doing anything you want," she encouraged students.

Dressed in a fashionable navy suit with gold accessories, Ms. Gaddy presents a different picture today than she did when she arrived in Baltimore in 1964 with no shoes and five children.

But don't think for a minute she doesn't remember her past.

Before she came on stage, she took money out of her purse and tucked it into her blouse for safekeeping.

Years of poverty have made her cautious, but her faith keeps her going.

"I prayed to God," she told one person, who asked her how she changed her life.

She was also resilient. She talked about dragging a trash can to a neighborhood grocery store and asking for the food the storekeeper was going to throw out.

Ms. Gaddy did that three times that day, filling the container and feeding hungry people at the little rowhouse at 140 N. Collington Ave. that now serves as the Patterson Park Emergency Food Center.

Although she feeds and houses the needy yearlong, her most widelyknown effort is the annual Thanksgiving dinner.

Her first holiday meal served 39 in 1981. Last year, her efforts fed nearly 20,000.

Several times, she encouraged the audience to become involved. "I challenge all of you to visit us," she said. "My job is to teach the haves how to help."

L It's a message that has been heard -- and heeded -- by many.

Today, Ms. Gaddy's 3,000 volunteers will gather in Baltimore to be honored for their work -- and also to celebrate their leader's 61st birthday.

Ms. Gaddy's secretary, Mike Brockington, knows just how persuasive his boss can be. "I've been with her 11 years, and she's worked me to death," he said, half-jokingly.

Several members of the audience came under Ms. Gaddy's spell. Scott Calkins, president of the college's student government association, offered his organization's help.

And student Angel Coffin-Bero asked simply, "How do I do it?"

Ms. Gaddy tells prospective volunteers to call her office to receive a volunteer profile form.

She doesn't take chances with her helpers, she said. "What if they have a criminal record or are a child molester or have a contagious illness?"

But there was no doubt that Ms. Gaddy would always be there to help those in trouble.

She was quite serious when she told the audience: "If you ever need me, call me."

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