Mother on mission for a better community

Volunteer Maria Ruiz (left) follows guidance from Mary Gloria (right) at the temporary storage facility located in San Tan Valley. (Josh Ortega/Tribune Staff Writer)

A charity that started in Mary Gloria’s Queen Creek house now operates from two shipping containers in a dirt lot in San Tan Valley.

Gloria started Pan de Vida Foundation because it’s part of her charitable upbringing.

The 78-year-old Mexican American was born in Tempe with nine siblings, got married at age 15 and raised her 17 children.

She has spent her whole life serving others.

“I didn’t work very much,” she said. “I was too busy taking care of my family.”

She started the nonprofit in 2003 and earned its 501(c)3 status in December 2004.

It hasn’t been an easy journey to fix a 500-household community within the 1-square-mile around her current neighborhood, once known as “Little Mexico.”

“There were at least five or six drug houses,” she said. “There was a lot of drugs going in and around it.”

In 2009, she began trying to revitalize the community and clean up graffiti-covered buildings.

Gloria has helped the people in the community that now includes the Valley of the Sun Estates, got food and other necessities and created health fairs and clinics that serve over 150 families with the volunteer support of five physicians.

She’s also helped get football jerseys and equipment for the student athletes of Queen Creek.

Now she lives with her daughter and travels 15 minutes down the road once a week to sort through the donations to see what she can give to the community.

“That was the example our parents gave us that you always help people no matter what,” she said.

She said her kids tell her they’re worried about her health but she believes health problems happen regardless of your activity level.

“Well, if I sit down and watch TV, I’m going to be bored,” she said. “I’m still going to get sick just sitting there.”

The pandemic slowed her down a bit but it also slowed down as charitable giving declined. As it picks up again, so too does the activity by Gloria and the foundation volunteers.

Maria Alvidrez, the vice president of Pan de Vida who has volunteered for approximately 14 years, still is awed by watching how Gloria puts so much energy into her work.

“I get surprised every single time I come in to help Mary,” she said. “She has been so strong.”

With temperatures reaching 117 degrees, Alvidrez said she’s watched Gloria nearly pass out while handing out food to families in need.

Now, she wants to open a new community center on the one-acre lot in San Tan Valley, but with only $100,000 raised from events such as rummage sales, it’s a long shot of a dream.

On top of spearheading the fundraising for the nonprofit, Gloria spends most of her days applying for grants to help finish the community center.

Alvidrez said Gloria’s dedication to the community to bring their basic needs for a food bank, day care, and health classes to teach about diabetes and heart disease remains at the forefront of her mind.

“She’s been here so many years and she’s still here because she wants to get this community better.”