Marylyn DeFeo, 2000 Women of Achievement recipient

Featured Sliders / HER Profile / Lifestyle / Stories / March 13, 2019

Story by Samantha Pogue

There have been countless nominees and more than 30 Women of Achievement winners at Zonta Jefferson City’s Yellow Rose Luncheon during the last 19 years. Every one is deserving of recognition as they are the leaders, the volunteers, the educators and the unsung heroes for women, children and multiple residents of the capital city and Mid-Missouri. HER Magazine caught up with two of these Women of Achievement recipients: Marylyn DeFeo, one of the first and also Lifetime Achievement award winner, and Dr. Miriam Fuller, 2014 honoree.

Pieces of what Marylyn DeFeo has done, things she has accomplished and who she is hang on the wall of her office at the Samaritan Center.

Displayed behind her desk is a quilt her daughter-in-law Jeni DeFeo made that embraces the family’s strong bond and their motto, which pays homage to the love notes in Greek Marylyn’s husband of now 62 years, Louis, would leave for her when they were in college. Important memories are encapsulated in pictures and gifts, including a drawing a little girl made for Marylyn of a Osage River bridge near Chamois that went down in the flood of 1993. The Samaritan Center assisted the less fortunate with resources and services following this disaster.

(Photo by Samantha Pogue) Marylyn DeFeo, center, looks over a food distribution list with volunteers Diane
Wildhaber and Jackie Matthews at the Samaritan Center.

To the right, numerous awards adorn the wall. Among them are being named Distinguished Alumni in 2014 as part of the 50-year class of 1964 at St. Teresa’s Academy Alumnae Reunion Celebration in Kansas City, earning one of the first Zonta Jefferson City Women of Achievement honors in 2000 and receiving the club’s Mrs. William H. Weldon Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013.

There is still so much more to Marylyn. She was a Cub Scout den mother, Girl Scout leader and diocesan leader for the Girl Scouts, and longtime volunteer with St. Mary’s Hospital Auxiliary, leading its Ice Cream Social and Spaghetti Dinner. Not to mention she’s also a grandmother to 28 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

DeFeo’s heart lies in helping others, and she is most well-known for founding the Samaritan Center and still acting as its volunteer executive director. Helping grow this interfaith agency that provides multiple services for people and families in need is a large part of what she has done, what she has accomplished and who she is.

“It has been a fun ride, and a heartbreaking ride at times. You go home, knowing you have done what you can do and it is in God’s hands,” she said. “God truly does have his hand on this place. I sit here and think every once and awhile, ‘Wow.'”

Finding her purpose

 Marylyn DeFeo is the first to say she is “certainly not a saint,” but she does feel that people are put on the earth for a reason.

Born in Clinton, Missouri, Marylyn DeFeo primarily grew up in Kansas City. However, often her family would spend time with her grandparents back in Clinton during the summer. Her grandmother often helped people and her grandfather, a doctor, would visit the less fortunate and provide them with medical assistance at their homes.

“He would go around to what we would call the ‘streetcar people’, back in the ’40s. These were people who lived outside of Clinton in old streetcars, using newspaper to cover their windows,” she said. “There was one little boy about my age that was there that had a diseased eye and grandpa got him a glass eye so he wouldn’t be disfigured. I remember when we went back to the car, he said, ‘Now Marylyn, we won’t say anything to anybody about this; it is between you, me and God.’ I have never forgotten that and never told the story until Gramps was dead. I think following him around in the summer time and seeing the good he did with the poor people influenced me to help others.”

Marylyn also had mission classes while attending St. Theresa’s Academy in Kansas City. The students would collect canned goods, and she was tasked to deliver them to a family that lived under a viaduct the day before Christmas Eve. She walked up to an old plywood packing box that had a cut-out door, knocked and saw a little boy answer. She delivered the canned goods to a lady who then came to the door and Marylyn issued them a “Merry Christmas.”

“There was a dirt floor, no furniture and an orange crate with a (covering) and a Madonna and candle sitting on top. Where do you cook? Do you have a can opener or a pot? As I went back to the car, I thought there is not even a bag of candy I could give to this little boy for Christmas,” Marylyn said. “I walked in our house and immediately smelled the Christmas tree and a roast beef my mom was cooking. … I told my dad the story, and before I knew it he told my mother to pack up the roast. We drove down and gave those people that roast beef and Christmas cookies and stuff my mom had made. That was the second thing God sent me on.”

More than a mission

Marylyn believes God was also there when the Samaritan Center was founded.

(Photo by Samantha Pogue) Construction is in the last stages of a new, large warehouse at the Samaritan Center, which should be open by April, Marylyn DeFeo said.

She had moved to Jefferson City with her husband in 1963 after Louis got a job as an assistant attorney general. The then head of the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City challenged local parishes to form a group of agencies within their church to help people. Marylyn said some took care of social concerns while others assisted administration in the school. The father at Immaculate Conception Church asked Marylyn to be the commissioner of social concerns, and she became a “grandma” to many of the families when visiting apartments as part of this mission.

“Some didn’t know how to sterilize bottles, and I helped them learn the basics. I did lot of grocery shopping,” she said. Then one day a gentleman who owned a recycling facility told her that JCPenney’s had dropped off tons of clothes and he didn’t want to throw them away as most still had the price tags. “He brought them to my house and I sorted them in barrels. There were lots of bras, panties and women’s lingerie, as well as jeans sizes 3 to 48.”

Marylyn donated a lot of the lingerie to local female prisoners, and jeans were given as presents to individuals she interviewed when she started the church’s annual Giving Tree program at Christmas time.

“Soon, St. Peter Catholic Church called me and asked how do they do that (start a Giving Tree program) and then the next year (Cathedral of) St. Joseph contacted me,” she said. “I had been doing this two years and it was in 1987 I said to the father we needed to do something more centralized. I sent letters out to all the churches, including the protestant churches, and invited them to a meeting. We needed to all work together.”

Marylyn said Central United Church of Christ and Our Savior’s Lutheran jumped on the bandwagon immediately, alongside the three catholic churches in town. The Samaritan Center first began in a small empty classroom that same year assisting 15 families with food and clothing. It then moved to a large community room spanning the whole basement in the convent at Immaculate Conception School. As the need grew, Marylyn knew they needed a larger space. Through the help of friends, she was able to secure a grant with money to match that allowed them to build their current facility at 1310 E. McCarty St.

“It all came together and we built this magnificent building free of charge,” she said. “It was an absolute miracle.”

Operating there since 1999 and now assisted by multiple churches, the Samaritan Center today serves about 1,700 families a month in Cole, Osage, Maries, Miller, Moniteau and southern Callaway counties. They provide food and clothing, medical and legal care, and financial aid for the needy. Cooking and nutrition classes, books for children and their parents, school supplies, electric box fans, tax preparation and help with any other human needs not addressed by other available programs.

Marylyn’s youngest child Ben now acts as the Samaritan Center’s operations manager, and the organization only has five paid staff. Six hundred-plus volunteers come every month to help with its multiple services, including students from Jefferson City High School and Louis who assists with legal services for clients.

“He (God) has blessed me with people that come here to work and are so like-minded,” Marylyn said.

A wonderful life of service

 That mission is to serve people who truly need help like one gentleman who works but does not have health insurance and came to seek treatment for his heart disease. Or a grandmother who gained custody of her four grandchildren and needed additional help after having to relocate to another residence.

(Photo by Samantha Pogue) Samaritan Center volunteers Judy Hudson, Judy Schmoeger and Lillian Redel gather food to give to a client.

“The lady and her grandchildren were in an old trailer, having an apple and orange Christmas. Her grandson cut down a cedar tree in the woods, decorated it with cut-out snowflakes and decided to have a nice meal instead of buy presents. I asked if they needed comforters or bedding, and she said no they were OK, but she needed help with the electric bill,” Marylyn explained. “We have a family that donates $25 Walmart cards every year around Christmas time and gave us 500 of them. I gave her some and told her to stock up on groceries and gas, too. She is doing OK now.”

“Those are the kinds of people we help. … These are struggling, hard-working people that make our community go,” she said.

Hard-working volunteers, donations and generosity from the community is what makes the Samaritan Center continue to go and meet the increasing need in Mid-Missouri. In fact, an anonymous donor is helping to build a 4,700-square-foot, pre-engineered warehouse that will be completed by April, Marylyn said.

“Thank God for generous people, and this is such a generous, giving community,” Marylyn said. “It is also the people that come in here and give envelopes with $5 or $10, saying ‘you helped me and now I want to help you.'”

Their appreciation for the Samaritan Center and Marylyn’s years of service to her community does not go unnoticed. As it hasn’t with her many awards and recognition, including the 2000 Women of Achievement and 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award from Zonta Jefferson City.

“I about fainted when I found out I had been nominated. Then I was sitting there at the table and they called my name and I was like, ‘whoa,'” Marylyn said with a laugh. “I see these women now and they all have their little cheat sheets and prepared things they are going to say. I didn’t have anything. I got up there and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness. This happened.'”

DeFeo attends every Yellow Rose Luncheon, supporting the event and supporting the women honored. She believes it is good to have avenues for women to get together and be ladies together. She values the importance of being successful, giving back to others and having a variety of interests, skills and passions.

Marylyn, who loves quilting, reading on her Kindle and playing Bridge, said her mother was an avid reader and would often quote and act out parts of Shakespeare’s plays while Marylyn and her sisters did dishes and helped in the kitchen. In turn, Marylyn often utilized the French language she learned in college in educating her seven children, encouraging them to say their prayers in French. She wanted her two daughters to succeed, be good, professional women, as well as be independent women and good mothers and housewives. They are all of those things like their equally successful brothers. She encourages all women to have that same mindset and drive.

“It enriches your life to be multifaceted. Try everything; there is nothing you can’t try. You may fall on your face, but you tried,” she said. “It is there if you want to venture forth.”

For more information bout the Samaritan Center, visit

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Madeleine Leroux

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Dr. Miriam Fuller, 2014 Women of Achievement recipient

There have been countless nominees and more than 30 Women of Achievement winners at Zonta Jefferson City's Yellow Rose...

March 13, 2019