Roxane B. Salonen, Published December 13 2013
Faith Conversations: Fargo woman fosters Christmas spirit all year
It also meant joy, especially around Christmas.
“We always acted out the manger scene, and since there were eight kids, everyone had a part,” she says. “Dad was in the audience, and Mom was the director.”
A narrator would read the biblical account, with the rest assuming the roles of Mary and Joseph, the wise men, shepherd, and some years, a live baby to play Jesus.
The family necessarily kept things simple. “I remember one Christmas I got a blanket from my grandma and it made me cry. I had wanted that so badly,” Mary Jean recounts. “My parents definitely taught presence of God rather than presents under the tree.”
She held fast to this approach when becoming a mother herself and nurturing four children – the youngest of whom is a senior at North High School – with her husband, Jeff.
“I try not to get twisted into the commercialism of Christmas,” she says. “We do one gift. We emphasize being together, recognizing this is God’s day, not ours, and to bask in the beauty of the season and the miracle of the birth of the baby.”
This attitude of considering others first, along with seeking goodness, seems to abound in Mary Jean’s heart.
At their home in north Fargo, affixed near the family’s front door is a sign that reads, “Every cloud has a silver lining.”
“It means that each day we’re given a choice to look for blessing through the difficulties,” Mary Jean explains. “God’s power and grace is often more powerfully seen and felt in our weakness when we submit to his control and strength. It’s a choice of attitude and perspective.”
Certainly, she knows what it’s like to need God. Growing up the third youngest in a family that struggled financially, Mary Jean also learned to be creative with what you have.
“We swapped clothes and did all kinds of things to make it work,” Mary Jean says. “One time, as a teenager, I tried to get my mom to buy me a pair of jeans, but she just wouldn’t do it. And she cut our hair because she didn’t have the money to take us to the beauty shop.”
She can count one family vacation in all those early years, yet doesn’t feel denied.
“My folks had a very keen sense of being able to identify the different gifts in their kids and to nurture and challenge them to blossom and grow,” she says.
While her older sisters were go-to gals for their mother, helping with everything from sewing to soothing a sad child, and the boys assisted with repair work for their father’s business, Mary Jean eventually found her place in part as her father’s bookkeeper, a job she took on from sixth grade through high school.
A HEART FOR ‘DIVERSE TEENS’
Later, she would channel that energy and talent into work as a teacher, coach and mother, but during her last teaching stint at Ben Franklin Middle School in Fargo, she began to feel she had more to offer than what the confines of a school building offered.
The idea to establish a foundation working with local teens seized her, and in 2011, she left her teaching career to bring the idea to fruition.
Now heading into its third year, Children’s Legacy Foundation – a private, nonprofit organization that aims to provide additional relationships and resources to inspire adolescents to complete high school – works with around 40 “diverse teens,” providing a healthy set of expectations and meaningful rewards as stepping stones for their future.
Nancy Tidd has known Mary Jean since high school, when she served as her teacher and coach. Now, a mentor to the mentors of the program, Tidd says what stands out most about Mary Jean is her drive and passion.
“She has the belief that every student has the capacity to succeed, and she will go to the nth degree to assist each student individually,” Tidd says, adding that though she’s very compassionate, Mary Jean will not coddle students and sets high expectations for them as a motivator.
“Nothing gets in the way of this woman’s dreams and aspirations,” Tidd adds. “She sees a bump in the road not as a stop sign but a hurdle to overcome on the way to the finish line.”
THEY’VE GOT HER BACK
Steve Scheel, chairman and CEO of Scheels All Sports, met Mary Jean through First Lutheran Church, but got to know her giving spirit on a mission trip in Mexico.
“During that time I saw this love coming out of Mary Jean, a passion from her toward these young kids,” Scheel recounts. When she contacted him years later about possibly supporting her dream in some way, he didn’t hesitate.
“There was a group of us behind her, but most of this evolved out of one person’s love for these kids and the fact that she did not want to see them fail,” Scheel says. “And she wanted students that wouldn’t just graduate but would become good citizens.”
Nancy Schafer, wife of former Gov. Ed Schafer, first met Mary Jean at her grandmother’s funeral. “I was asked to play Norwegian polkas on my accordion,” Schafer says, adding that the families got to know each other more through former church and Legacy.
Schafer says it’s inspiring to watch Mary Jean work with the Legacy students, many of whom come from other countries.
“Mary Jean is committed to teaching them patriotism, encouraging them to value their roots and fostering in them a pride of being an American, as well as the responsibility they have as citizens,” she says. “Mary Jean is changing the world one life at a time right here in Fargo.”
Jeff won’t argue the point, though he does admit that when Mary Jean first approached him with the idea of Legacy, his jaw dropped an inch or two.
“It was concerning at the time,” he says, “but I also knew that when she decides to do something, she’s going to work at it and do the things that are necessary to make it successful,” he says.
Though he admires her faith, which undoubtedly fuels her work, he says, athletics initially brought them together. He was coaching her sister, an eighth-grader at the time, in basketball, and kept noticing her older sister at games and practices. They started talking sports, and the rest is history.
That competitive nature has remained intact, Jeff says, and though documented proof doesn’t exist, some in the family believe Mary Jean to have taken part in some questionable activity.
“When we get together, as a family, we are very competitive by nature, and nobody likes to lose,” he says, “and on more than one occasion, she’s been accused of cheating at cards.”
True or not, there’s one thing uncontested when it comes to Mary Jean – that she brings hope and joy to those in her midst. And perhaps, in that, a few cheats on a card game can be excused.
“Her purpose on earth is to help others, and it is so widespread with the many activities she does, it is amazing,” Tidd says. “On a personal note, even though I had been her teacher and mentor, she has been mine, too, which is pretty awesome. It’s a pleasure and honor to call her friend.”
Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.