She lived in Hospital Ground. Most days her 82-year-old legs would carry her downtown to the Waterfront for a free lunch served by the Salvation Army. But some days she was moving slowly. Or she’d get a late start and arrive to scant leftovers.
So a volunteer server got into the habit of dishing up a plate of food for her and setting it aside until she appeared.
But one day it didn’t work. Somehow, the special plate of nourishing vegetables and meat disappeared, and all that was left when the woman arrived was pizza.
It was several years ago, but Maria Ferreras remembers vividly how bad she felt for letting the lady down. And she remembers what the woman told her:
“Don’t worry, darling. Many a mouth today will see no food. I’m blessed.”
It’s a lesson not wasted on Ferreras, who will tell you she learns a lot from others, especially those she serves, and that she’s been blessed many times over by the community to which she has devoted much of her life.
In the 25-plus years that Ferreras has made St. Thomas her home, she has worked with scads of its non-profit organizations besides the Salvation Army, including the Family Resource Center, Crime Stoppers, the Make a Wish Foundation, Destination Downtown, the V.I. Council for Disability Rights, Karen’s Place and Bethlehem House Shelter.
She also solos on projects that touch her heart. Some years ago, she made friends with John Van Hyning, a man who was homeless. When he disappeared from the streets, she made it her mission to find him, even running an advertisement in the newspaper. And when it developed that he had died, alone and unknown, she helped organize his funeral and a well-attended memorial, sending him off with a name and with dignity.
Ferreras gravitates to the marginalized and she’s at home in the trenches.
But don’t look for a heavenly harp in her hand. It’s more like bent wings and a halo slipping over one eye as she runs to her next project. And while community work is important to her, it’s only a part of her busy life.
Born and raised in New York City, she was just 14 when she met Paul Ferreras at a square dancing club.
“We started dating at 16,” she said. At 21, they married. She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and constitutional law from Brooklyn College, and Paul became a structural engineer. They started a family. Then, in the late 1980s, Paul had an opportunity to work on the Palm Gardens project in St. Thomas, and the young family moved, temporarily they thought, to the tropics.
But in September 1989 Hugo roared through the territory, causing enormous property damage. Suddenly there was tremendous need for a structural engineer.
“It became home because of the hurricane,” Ferreras said.
She has no regrets now, but her initial adjustment to island life wasn’t easy.
“I had an iguana come into my house the first week. Nobody believes it.” She didn’t at first either. When her daughter Karen, then five, alerted her, Ferreras assured the child it was just a lizard. “She said, ‘No, Mommy, it’s the thing that goes like this’ and she stuck her tongue out.” Ferreras found it in the bathtub and, unable to convince the maintenance man it was there, she managed to get it outside herself.
“My idea of wild life in New York City was seeing a pigeon,” she said.
There were other contrasts. A power failure in New York was rare and meant no lights. An outage on St. Thomas was common and it meant no lights and no water. Driving on the left was “the first fearsome task.” She knew she had to get behind the wheel right away “or I would never move.”
She was adjusting quickly, but she missed New York and she was lonely for family and friends there. She took on that challenge as she had driving – head on. She volunteered at the Catholic Diocese and immersed herself in community service. She made friends with the clergy, the staff, other volunteers, and the people needing service.
“The loneliness evaporated right away,” she said.
“I was a mom to the kids when they were little,” Ferreras said. But later she joined the workforce. She worked with Topa Insurance briefly and then joined Armour Enterprises, which developed and rented commercial properties.
“I became a property manager,” she said. “I wound up being there 17 years.”
It wasn’t exactly the career she had prepared for in college, but she did find that a course she took in mediating international disputes came in handy when she dealt with tenants from around the world.
Officially, Ferreras is retired, “getting older, fatter and grayer, I tell everybody,” she says. But actually, she works with her husband: “The girl that goes around and does all the errands, that’s my job now.” That, and community service, of course.
Ferreras says she couldn’t help getting involved.
“I was working downtown and every day, I’d see the homeless on the street,” she said.
That was one of the reasons she joined up with the Salvation Army. She’s served as a board member as well as a helper and currently is in charge of the pantry, where people in need can come for staples to stock their home kitchens.
“They treat the poorest of the poor,” she said. “The forgotten people are welcome there … It’s a true safety net.”
The organization serves a free lunch five days a week, averaging about 90 to 120 guests each day, she said. Most are indigent and homeless, but “a lot of elderly people come too … We don’t question anybody. You’re hungry, you get food.”
Ferreras ticked off a list of other Salvation Army programs, including computer programs for seniors, book drives, holiday food and gift distributions and music instruction for children.
She’s been part of the Make a Wish Foundation since it started a chapter in the Virgin Islands about six years ago. Any child aged three to 18 years old who has a life-threatening illness is potentially eligible to be a beneficiary of the program. Wishes the foundation has sponsored include staging a performance for a girl who dreamed of being a singer, sending a boy to meet a basketball star, and providing the opportunity for a boy to “be” a V.I. Police officer for a day.
Not all the wishes make the newspaper. Some are “media-friendly,” as Ferreras put it, but others happen without fanfare. “We respect the privacy” of the child and his or her family.
She serves on the council and also works as a “wish granter,” which means she meets with the children and gets to know them and their family.
“You gotta be really careful,” she said. You want to make sure that the stated wish is really what the child wants, not what a parent has suggested. And you have to be realistic in what you promise. You can’t give the child a pony, for instance, but you may be able to arrange a pony ride, horse-related toys and a room decorated in the theme.
Not all of Ferreras’s work is obvious. She serves on the board of Crime Stoppers, but that’s “a very quiet program.” The group offers rewards for tips that lead to successful police operations.
“It’s worked phenomenally well” in getting guns and drugs off the streets. But “Crime Stoppers will never take credit” for any success, because that might jeopardize the whistle-blower. “It’s totally anonymous,” she said.
“The tips don’t come to the board,” she noted. The system is electronic and foolproof. “The network is so secure that the FBI can’t crack it.”
Ferreras has taken on another role in recent years: the friendly gadfly.
“I do poke the government sometimes,” she said.
Those little nudges generally take the form of letters to the editor or to senators, criticizing things like using taxpayer dollars to buy limousines rather than ambulances, or pointing out that the territory lacks mental-health care facilities.
“I like to fix things I don’t think are working well,” she said. “There are so many smart and talented people here, we ought to be able to fix things … We need to pull together and pull forward. I know we can do it."
Ferreras readily admits to being an optimist. One of her favorite movies is the holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
She says she comes by her activism honestly. Her mother was a special education teacher; her father was a Boy Scout leader.
“They set a good example," she said. "My father taught us God, community, family, others first … I knew how we were expected to treat people who had special needs.”
Another big influence was an “unbelievably profound and wise professor” named Larry Schwartz, who taught his students about justice, civil rights and equality.
“He prepared us to go out and help change things,” she said.
Illustrating the extent of his influence, she added, “I’m a grandmother, and I’m still in touch with my professor.”
The Ferreras’ son, Christopher, is an engineer working for the Water and Power Authority on St. Croix. Daughter Karen Truscelli is an accountant in New York City but currently is a stay-at-home mom. There are four grandchildren, two on St. Croix and two in New York.
Family is obviously important to Ferreras, and her family is very much an extended one.
“I grew up in a neighborhood where you looked out for one another,” she said. “The Virgin Islands is a big neighborhood.”