"I love where I come from because it's so diverse."
Mary Lee grew up in one of Seattle's most multicultural neighborhoods: Columbia City, in the heart of Rainier Valley.
"I wouldn't live anywhere else," she says. "I tried to move away a few times, [but] I got homesick."
As a child, she remembers how much she loved going into everyone's kitchen. She ate kaldereta at the homes of her Filipino friends, gnocchi with her Italian friends, and couscous with her Jewish friends. "Everyone wanted to feed me because I was so skinny," she laughs. "I always learned how to finagle a meal."
She herself is of Irish-Catholic descent, and is proud of her heritage. She sent both of her daughters to Catholic school and signed them up for Irish dance classes, where she often accompanied them. "I just think it's important to keep your history alive," she says matter-of-factly. And that includes her faith: "My faith in God has kept me strong... I lean on that very much."
After all, she's faced her share of trials and tribulations. Mary Lee has been grappling with drug and alcohol addiction since she was a teenager. Now 53, she also lives with a disability that makes it very difficult to work a full-time job. She receives $339 a month under the state-funded General Assistance Unemployable (GAU) program, and sells Real Change to supplement this amount.
A vendor for two years, selling the paper has allowed her to choose her own hours and make a little money on the side. And it's also lifted her spirits.
"I see Real Change as really helping people to get off the street and feel better about themselves," she says. "And Lord knows, being out here, things happen that make you lose your self-esteem."
To her customers, she says, "I appreciate your support." n
Update: Mary Lee is currently in alcohol treatment at a long-term facility, but requested that this article still be printed. Please keep her in your thoughts and prayers. Her message for those struggling with addiction: "Treatment is possible!"