Mary Watts had been in Del Paso Heights for only a few years when she saw something that changed her life. Fact is, it ended up changing a lot of lives up in North Sac.
It was the late 1970s. Watts doesn’t remember the exact day or year. But the memory is clear: a boy – maybe 6 or 7 years old – climbing into a dumpster on Norwood Avenue. He was looking for food.
“It tore my heart up,” Watts said this week.
That moment sent Watts on her path toward becoming the reluctant matriarch of Del Paso Heights. It was the motivation for her starting the TLC Soup Kitchen, which in over 30 years has handed out food to thousands of hungry people. Watts wishes she could have stopped years ago, but the need never went away.
“I was just trying to help,” Watts said. “And then the helping got bigger and bigger and bigger.”
So revered is Watts in her neighborhood that a street is named after her. “Mother Watts,” as she is known, is someone that many people turn to when they have no one else. Watts said homeless and hungry people show up at her front door all the time – not just at the door of her soup kitchen or at the church where she spends a lot of her time, but at her home.
“Mommy, you got something hot to drink?” they ask her.
She always does. TLC gives out 2,500 loaves of bread a week to hungry people and nearby churches. They hold holiday dinners at Robertson Community Center, help coordinate the neighborhood’s National Night Out Against Crime event and co-host summer sports and academic camps for school kids.
Fueled by the 72-year-old Watts and more than a dozen volunteers, TLC barely breaks even. Watts said the only profit it’s provided her is a few extra pounds. That’s what makes March 5 such an important day: that’s when TLC will hold its annual crab feed fundraiser at the Robertson center on Norwood Avenue. The event starts at 6 p.m., and tickets are $45.
Watts has been in Del Paso Heights for more than 40 years. For about the last eight, she’s lived in a tidy home next to Victory Tabernacle church on Marysville Boulevard, where she’s a community outreach director. In her time in the neighborhood, she’s watched Marysville Boulevard – perhaps the area’s main street – go from a bustling commercial strip to a blighted patchwork of liquor stores and empty lots.
But then a new Viva Supermarket opened across the street from her home earlier this month, employing more than three dozen people from Del Paso Heights. Maybe the young people who have been fleeing Del Paso Heights for years will see it as a sign that the outside world is willing to invest in their neighborhood – at least that’s Watts’ hope. She’s getting ready to pass the baton and she needs someone to step up.
“I’m getting older,” she said. “Somebody has to come back and take over. But they go away and they don’t come back. What’s going to happen to the neighborhood?”
You would excuse Watts if she’d been beaten down by the years in Del Paso Heights and left long ago. A man was shot and killed by police in an alley near her home in 2014. Drive-by shootings had become so commonplace that Victory Tabernacle built a foyer in the front of its building to shield parishioners in case bullets were flying outside. It took three months for police to announce an arrest in the November shooting death of Grant High football player J.J. Clavo, a crime that put the neighborhood on “high alert,” Watts said.
And yet Watts remains steadfast in her devotion to Del Paso Heights, driven by her faith. She lives by Psalm 23 in the Old Testament: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
“I have not wanted for anything,” she said.