Sister Mary Lanning • 2020 Honoree

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By Sasha Matthews, 10th grader cartoonist activist

Sister Mary Lanning is all about stepping up to do whatever needs doing. As a child, she helped her family during the strain of World War II by taking care of her many younger siblings while juggling schoolwork and a job. At 17 she was a nun. But looking out from her cloister in the Bronx, she saw poverty, violence, and injustice. She decided there was more she could do for the world by getting out and taking direct action to help people.

Even though she barely made enough money to scrape by, Sister Mary always helped those in need. She would see hungry people in the street and run home to get them food. Her friends suggested she start a charity to be more efficient in helping people, and YES!Solutions was born.

Watch Sasha read her introduction

It’s Mary’s all-purpose charity, where the answer is always “yes!”
Yes, someone cares.
Yes you can help.
And yes we can find a solution to whatever problem you have.

YES!Solutions serves the community of New York City by organizing meals, kids’ activities, gift donations, and holiday celebrations for people who can’t afford to have their own.

Sister Mary’s philosophy is an inspiration: “If you’re the one who sees it and it needs to be done, why not do it.”


May 8, 2020

The pleasure of your company in the garden
at the Museum of the City of New York,
giving legs to each other’s dreams of
a world that DOES morph into better-ness as often as we, together, choose that trajectory …

… Wasn’t that the game plan for tonight?

I look longingly out my window,
surrounded by very near ceiling and walls,
thankful for my stove and fridge,
my table,
my cup of tea,
all the while yearning to feel the wind in my face again,
to inhale this lacey Spring in big gulps,
to scoot downstairs and kiss the lilacs.

Our displacing reality, though, is:
we’re in the midst of a thundering global pandemic.
We’re more vulnerable than we ever dreamt. We’re feeling the core mortality of us.
Waiting for Hope.

Tilt ’n’ whirl statistics,
interpretations and re-interpretations,
revisionist opinionizing and dire crystal-balling …
the world of just a few weeks ago
is turning into an amorphous caricature
of our worst cloak ‘n’ dagger fantasies,
while all that most of us want is to survive, humbly, gratefully,
and go back as soon as NOW
to LIFE, as we knew it,

We want to settle into being in control again.

… to return to predictability, and self-assurance …
and the illusion that our generation’s enlightened social consciousness
insures us a better future.

so the wise and patient elders of my youth assured me.
“Give it time, Maer.”

But when the weeping child, or broken elder,
or stumbling disillusioned man (or woman) teetering at the edge of traffic
needs a moment of understanding-listening-touching-kindness —
of simply Belonging —
there is no Time but NOW.
For me.

Some things can’t wait for public opinion, consensus,
or convenience.

I ask forgiveness
for sometimes returning phone calls and emails later than expected …
and I sometimes ask for help.

Earlier this week,
knowing that the Labor Arts Council volunteer wanted a photo of me
for the virtual awards gallery,
I sought the help I needed (as I often do) from total strangers.

I had arrived at the Queens side of the East River in high winds
(NOT of my making).
I hailed the couple from my car window, asking —
in the purest NY chutzpah —
“YO, Friends! May I ask you to help me, please?”
He and she looked up from their motorcycle, and responded
like purebred New Yorkers,
“Sure. What can we do?”

“I’m getting an award Friday. I need a picture”.
Laughing, we pulled my Nissan Rogue
and their souped-up Harley
nose-to-nose at the intersection.
I climbed out from behind my steering wheel
and leaped across a curbside puddle to the guard rail at the river’s edge.
She slid off the back of their bike.

In fewer than 4 animated minutes,
in wind gusts of 45 mph,
bike and car engines both still running,
Anya had used my phone to take a string of pictures.

“What’s the award?”
“Elderly woman activist.
Honoring/continuing the footprints of Clara Lemlich,
last-century labor organizer. Women’s rights. Workers’ rights”.

Gleeful giggles from her and me. A hoot from him.

Anti-COVID masks in place again,
we hugged (a little more than virtually).
They looked delighted …
and they took off into what was left of the sunset.

I had spent time earlier, viewing much of the Labor Arts website,
and (virtually) meeting prior honorees.
Now, I’ve come to know Clara.

I am deeply moved by her courage,
her lucid thinking,
her step-by-step creation of new ways of handling what others took for granted,
her persuasive articulation of the difference between rhetoric and doing,
her ability to touch and change society’s consciousness and conscience,
her brave determination.

She was beautiful;
a woman who left little as she found it, I think.

And they say she was “charming”

She started her own ethical, behavioral, societal makeover.
It spread, globally —
pandemic in scope,
breaking-down what WAS
into what COULD BE and DID COME TO BE.

I grew up in a world that already had started its makeover,
seeded by Clara.
Many of us know only a new genre of workplace, because of her.

Many of us have noble expectations of our own opportunities in work and world,
because of her.

May WE energize the next consciousness-changing, all around our world, by our lives.

I learned young,
in my big irish-american family,
that it’s ALWAYS time to put your life where your mouth is;
put your mouth where your life is.

For as long as I live,
I will sing,
And talk in stories,
Drumming up new ways
To BE and to DO what I believe —
whatever Life’s emergence.


Growing up in a large Scots-Irish family, Mary Lanning chose to become a nun and spent her first 13 years of religious life at a monastery in the South Bronx. Seeing the increasing poverty around her, she felt she could no longer remain cloistered and began to explore various ways to put her faith into practice in New York City.

An activist nun for over 60 years, Sister Mary founded YES!Solutions, a grassroots neighbor-to-neighbor service organization based in Harlem, to aid community members in need. Volunteers support their neighbors who are homeless, elderly and alone, out of work, formerly incarcerated, suffering from addiction, living in poverty, grieving; those who fall through the cracks, unable to access public and private services; those who are isolated. Volunteers prepare meals for the hungry, visit the lonely, bring blankets and clothing to the homeless, give solace to those bruised by the criminal justice system, provide low-income children with back-to-school backpacks, organize get togethers for those new to the US, and help young people prepare for college and careers.

With a background as a consultant on regulation in the insurance and financial industries, Sister Mary is also an officer in Boys Hope Girls Hope New York, a mentoring organization for low-income teens which prepares them for academic success. She sits on the boards of several area organizations, including Sports Angels, Boys Hope Girls Hope, the New York City Clothing Bank, and the Institute for the Healing of Memories.

Her goal has always been to encourage us all to “bring a little kindness to the streets.”