Story by Danielle Tobar | Apr 26, 2017
Photography by Keith Borgmeyer

Marylyn Defeo lives her life with faith and volunteerism.

As a child, Marylyn Defeo, longtime community volunteer and founder of The Samaritan Center in Jefferson City, would spend summers with her grandfather, a doctor, in Clinton, Missouri. Defeo saw him as both an inspiration and a role model; she accompanied him on his rounds, which included tending to those who lived in abandoned street cars. She recalls one memorable outing when her grandfather was able to procure a glass eye for a boy her age who had lost one. The boy’s mother paid them in chickens. “We hadn’t even gone a mile down the road before my grandfather told me, ‘Okay, you’re in charge of the chickens,’” she jokes.

Defeo inherited a sense of giving from her family and through an interfaith lens. Although Defeo was raised Irish Catholic, her grandfather was an orthodox Jew. Defeo laughs as she remembers weekends with her grandparents. “On Friday nights, I would be at Seder meal, then Sunday mornings they would drive me to mass,” she says. “It was a very rich childhood that I had.”

One moment from high school stands out to Defeo as influential in her calling to service. A Christmas school project brought her and other friends together delivering canned goods to those in need. The last stop on the list left her alone, making the delivery to a family living in a wooden crate. The youngest boy in the family was overjoyed at the food, which shook young Defeo. “I thought, ‘Oh gosh, we don’t even have a bag of candy,’” she says. “That just haunted me. I never forgot it. Why are we so lucky and those folks have nothing?”

She went home and told her parents about it, and Defeo’s father made a special trip to the butcher so that her mother could make a nice meal for the family’s Christmas. “I think God had a plan for me. He kept poking me with it, and I finally said OK.”

You might say that she finally said “OK” when she took the position as commissioner of the social concerns committee at Immaculate Conception Parish. Defeo’s youngest son was growing up and some of the older children were off to college. She became what she called the “grandma,” teaching young mothers in need how to care for their children — everything from how to change diapers to cleaning bottles. Always looking for an opportunity to assist the community, she once again saw one at Christmas. Defeo had the idea to put up a tree with tags on it and let parishioners take a tag to buy presents for the family listed — and so the Jesse Tree was born. It was a hit. Soon Jesse Trees became a staple at parishes around town.

Not long after, Defeo saw another need, at an interfaith charity, The Samaritan Center. Although it was anything but easy, the project got off the ground, serving fifteen families out of IC’s Pleus Hall in 1987. It didn’t take long before their work had outgrown their location, and in 1998, The Samaritan Center broke ground on their current home on East McCarty. Three decades later, The Samaritan Center is still aiding the community, and won’t be slowing down anytime soon.

Defeo has a special interest in providing a place of purpose for those with special needs. The Samaritan Center currently has a program with special needs students from Jefferson City High School. The students help the center fill the pantry by packing items such as crackers and other snacks. It’s a simple job for the students, but it gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment. Defeo says: “That’s the thing that helps me get through with some of the nonsense in our world today. You have to work where you’re planted and change what you can change.”

Volunteering may be one of Defeo’s loves, but it’s not the only one. She jokes that she does, of course, have other hobbies and interests outside of helping others. They include playing bridge (which she’s been doing with the same group of ladies for over 50 years), enjoying a good book, and making memories with her family. Over 60 years of marriage have brought plenty of joy to her life, including seven children, 45 grandchildren, and 8 great-grandchildren. She laughs, “The girls are running strong.”

Defeo is adamant that none of the great work she’s done would have been possible without the unwavering love and support of her husband, Lou, and her children. She says, “They’re always behind me saying, ‘Go, Mom, go!’” And go she has.   

The Samaritan Center

This July, the Samaritan Center will be celebrating 30 years as a staple of service in our community. From the small team of its founding, the agency has now grown to a team of over 600 volunteers. (Even with an army like that, Defeo assured us they’re still taking new volunteers.) With an abundance of services like a food pantry, dental and medical services, and civil law services, the Samaritan Center fills a void for those in need.

For food, Defeo says canned goods are wonderful, but building a nutritious meal is difficult without fresh foods. Including more healthy and fresh options is just another way the Samaritan Center is trying to fulfill all the needs of their patrons.

With so many services available, Defeo says space is limited. Many areas are multi-purpose: they transform their tax office to a doctor’s office as needed. This July, The Samaritan Center will host their largest fundraising event of the year, their annual auction, which, this year, doubles as a 30th birthday party. The event will feature a dinner, a live auction, and a silent auction, and it will be held at Capital Plaza Hotel.

Proceeds will help The Samaritan Center continue their mission of going above and beyond in their service, even providing things like Easter dinner hams and children’s Halloween costumes. Defeo says it’s these things that really make a difference for the kids. “They have costume parties at school where they dress up, and I don’t want them feeling funny because they didn’t,” she says. “I really worry about the children and their future.” In 30 years, the Samaritan Center has grown from serving 15 families to over 1,400.