There is a story Maria Skoczylas (pronounced Sko-chellis) tells that explains perhaps better than anything else why she has devoted so much of her life to helping people who most others often ignore: the homeless.
Her Italian-immigrant father founded an opera company when she was growing up, and one night on the road, the woman hired to press the costumes said to her, “you’re like your father. You give everyone the same courtesy and kindness. I’m just a presser, but your dad treated me like the divas.”
When she and her husband moved to California, and ended up in Gilroy in 1965, Maria found what has become her enduring passion: supporting the homeless. That was when the California National Guard Armory began offering its space as a homeless shelter during the four colder months of the year.
“I volunteered for the first time on Christmas Eve that year and was hooked,” she recalls. “I’m still working there to this day. There are so many myths about the homeless; but in almost 30 years, I have never had any reason to fear. I’ve never had an unpleasant situation with a homeless person. Ever.”
“When I start something, I stick with it. I have that ability to be continuing and constant. I just won’t give up.”
Maria travelled to local grocery stores at 6:30 in the morning to collect donations of bread and pastries for the shelter.
It was clear, however, that the need for such housing was year-round, not seasonal. In 1996, Maria organized Advocates for the Homeless, which eventually led to zoning changes and then to financing for two permanent facilities for the homeless: the 60-unit Sobrato transitional apartments for families and another 26-unit building to permanently house homeless individuals. Along the way, she became a founding member of the Gilroy Compassion Center, a daytime service provider for the homeless.
“My family back east calls me the ‘energizer bunny,’” laughs Maria, now 88. “When I start something, I stick with it. I have that ability to be continuing and constant. I just won’t give up.”
What keeps her going? It’s memories like this one: “One young lady came to Sobrata after being homeless and abusing drugs. She had an 11-year-old boy. We were able to find her work at Best Buy, and now she’s a member of their Geek Squad and has her own apartment. She came back to speak to us and I sobbed. What better motivation can you ask for?”
Giving hope to the homeless
Meet Maria, one of seven winners of our 2015 Dorothy Richardson Resident Leadership Award, who is working to help the homeless in California and inspiring others in pursuit of her passion.