The Caring Place: Saving Lives One at a Time


Photo courtesy of The Caring Place

Mary Griffin didn’t know what to expect when God told her to quit her job and start a nonprofit organization to help the inner city youth in the Lehigh Valley.

She didn’t know she’d raise hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly since the start in 1996, nor did she know she would lose her daughter Elizabeth to suicide in 2014. All she knew was that she needed to get up from her desk and quit her job as a social worker. 

The Caring Place was founded for young children all the way up to college students. The Caring Place includes Anna’s Kitchen, where volunteers cook food for after-school programs for children and anyone in need of food, and A Taste of Soul, a restaurant where each sale gives money to The Caring Place to pay workers and profit for the programs. 

People donated and volunteered to help Griffin build her kitchen because of her inspirational dream – to help those in need in the community. Griffin did as her mother did, she networked. She went to people for help, asked for donations, and received help from her church. Once she had her building and kitchen, she hadn’t spent a dime; her volunteers made this place happen. 

“We were scared to death,” Griffin said. “We had just built a house in November, and I got up and quit my job as a social worker because God told me I needed to start this place.” Despite the financial fears, she and her family never went without food. 

At The Caring Place, there are programs such as The After School Program, Mentoring Program, Science Lab Program, College Tour Program, Sign Language, Gardening, and Entrepreneurial Program, all available for free.  The After School Program helps children in school by providing tutors to ensure they get good grades and learn adequately.

The Mentoring Program has two groups, one for young boys and one for girls, where the youth can meet and talk with stable adults whom they can depend on. The adults encourage them with their school work as well as provide cultural enrichment activities. 

The Science Lab Program teaches kids about the environment, space, and math and also consists of lab projects they can work on in a safe environment. The College Tour Program takes young adults to meet college administration, learn about degree opportunities and financial aid.  

Sign Language teaches children and young adults how to learn sign language so they can communicate with those who cannot speak. Gardening teaches kids how to grow food and plants in their own backyards. The Entrepreneurship Program provides inner-city youth with the knowledge and skills to plan, develop, and start their own businesses.

All of those programs are free. The Caring Place is possible through generous donations and volunteer work, all of which Griffin is not a stranger to. 

Growing Up an Outsider

Mary Griffin grew up in Macungie along with her mother, father, and siblings (Herold, Debra, and Carol) as the only African Americans in the town. She faced hardships living in the dominantly Pennsylvania German community. She was bullied in school, and racial slurs were often thrown at her by both children and their parents. 

Griffin’s mother always told her, “Never look down. Your place is everywhere.” She set herself as an example to Griffin to not let anything hold her back. Griffin’s mother started off by cleaning houses but then started her own bakery. Her mother built her own kitchen in the tackle room of Griffin’s father (who had passed away when she was six) with things she found, then she went to all the diners and restaurants around the area with samples of her baked goods. 

The bakery began to flourish. At her mother’s bakery, Griffin learned how to negotiate and run a proper business. Griffin’s own start with The Caring Place happened in a similar way.

Unspeakable Abuse

Griffin has one son, Steven, 24, and an adopted daughter, Elizabeth. In 1993, Griffin and her husband volunteered to foster Elizabeth, a child who had gone through unspeakable abuse and was surviving in the system.

“We only planned to watch her for the weekend, but when Monday came, no one called to take her back. So, we kept her,” said Griffin.  

Elizabeth’s life was difficult due to the trauma of her past, and it only grew worse when she found her birth mother. Elizabeth’s birth mother was still addicted to drugs and was a poor influence on her. When Elizabeth turned 18, she was human trafficked and went missing for 30 days. Griffin found her daughter after searching for weeks and brought her home, but the man who had taken Elizabeth began stalking her relentlessly.

Elizabeth said, “Momma, I want to go home to be with Grandma.” Her grandmother had died before Elizabeth was adopted; Elizabeth meant she wanted to die. Because of the trauma Elizabeth endured, she’d been committed to psychiatric institutions a few times. After getting out of the hospital this time, Elizabeth jumped off the 8th Street Bridge in Allentown in 2014, survived for 2 weeks in the hospital, and died. 

“It didn’t shake my faith,” Griffin said. “God gives and he takes away, and it’s not my place to know or understand. He has a plan.” Griffin has been following her divine plan without wavering or questioning, even when the things she’s seen or been through have been bleak.

Stories of Children

Griffin has two stories that have stuck with her throughout the years, success stories of children she’s helped in the Lehigh Valley.

“There was a boy who walked in here years ago and he never left,” she said of Stephen Walker, 35, who came to the Caring Place in need and now is a professor at Kutztown and getting his doctorate degree. Walker is now married and a father; has an office in The Caring Place.

As a kid, Walker had gone to The Caring Place with some friends after school one day at the Boys Event Program, a social gathering that linked young boys to solid male figures. 

“I enjoyed having that space. There were several black male adults that had professional lives and careers but were also taking time out of their lives to be with us,” said Walker. “It was a cool outlet to have.” 

Walker still visits the staff and the building as a way to give back to the help he received as a youth. Walker described Griffin, “Like the Caring Place, caring. Caring is at the core.” 

The second success story is about a young boy who lost both his parents. He had two younger sisters he had to take care of, but he couldn’t take it anymore. Griffin got a call one day saying there was a kid trying to jump off a bridge. She went and rescued him and took him and his sisters back to her house and cared for him. He’s now married with his own children and as Griffin puts it, “in a better place.” 

Steven Schoepple, 52, met Griffin at the Church on the Move in the early ’90s. They attended the same church while Schoepple was learning about faith. Griffin was the coordinator for a community center at a local housing project. Schoepple had an interest in helping inner-city children and the pair worked together at a homework club, where adults would help children with their homework. 

Schoepple watched Griffin’s vision of The Caring Place unfold and still volunteers in the kitchen during the busy summer months. He described her as “a good friend, who’s a great, wonderful, amazing, one-of-a-kind light in this world.”

Griffin hopes The Caring Place will be passed down to the next generation. She wants it to stay in Allentown, where the people in need are. To do so, she needs “to get the building paid off and to get folks in here that know the vision,” she said. And though she hopes to eventually retire and leave The Caring Place to someone else, her only other goal is more firm: “Never sell the building.”