Episode 4: Philanthropist MaryJudith Tierney, Serving Through Education

In this episode, we talk with MaryJudith (MJ) Tierney, a retired educator passionate about teaching young children the values of service. MaryJudith (MJ) shares her Catholic faith as a foundation for her teaching career and reason for passionately supporting social justice. As she says, “justice doesn’t mean that we all get the same thing. What it means is that we get what we need.”

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Guest Info

MaryJudith Tierney (MJ) has spent her career serving our world as a teacher, both in the classroom and at home. She is a firm believer in teaching the values of service, which was incorporated into the mission statement for the Catholic school she helped create. As a stay-at-home mom for many years, and now as a grandmother, she draws on the foundation of her own childhood to teach her family and students the importance of giving.

Show Notes

MaryJudith (MJ) sells healthy living products from Arbonne International, which is a Certified B Corp that puts “people, planet, and purpose over profit.” Visit her website here.

To support Ron, one of many housing insecure individuals in Washington DC, you can email MaryJudith at mjtma59@gmail.com, contact Ron directly at Ronalddudley43@gmail.com, or donate to him via Street Sense Media.

Reference to the Denzel Washington commencement speech on “Giving is Selfish” and a blog post on the speech.


JK: Welcome to the You Are a Philanthropist podcast. This is episode four, and today, we have philanthropist Mary Judith Tierney. MJ, as she’s better known as, is a lifelong educator, mom, grandma, and independent consultant for Arbonne International. She is a self-proclaimed empath and lover of mankind. MJ, thank you for being here today. We want to hear all about the philanthropic work you’ve done as an educator and what you’re doing today as an Arbonne consultant and mom and grandma. Thank you for being here.

MJT: Oh, thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here. So excited about this.

JK: So tell us how you got started in education.

MJT: Oh, it was totally by accident. I was a young bride, and I had been working in sales and traveling too much. And my aunt, for whom I am named, a Catholic nun, knew of a school that was desperate for a body to stand in the classroom with 28 inner city seventh-grade students. And I said, “I’d love it.” I had been teaching, volunteering in a church, volunteering. And so I had that much experience, and that was it. I had no education classes. Nothing. I went into the classroom and absolutely fell in love.

JK: Wow! It sounds like you probably fell in love with those terrific students you first taught?

MJT: Yeah. It’s crazy how long ago that was too. I mean, I was probably only 10 years older than most of them, maybe 12. So I often wonder where they are now.

JK: I’m just curious, what kinds of things did you teach them in seventh grade?

MJT: So I actually taught them everything. It was a self-contained classroom. The only thing I did not teach was science. So I taught English, I taught math, I taught science, I taught – excuse me – social studies, music, everything. It was that kind of a school. And these kids were inner city kids, which back in 1985, I think we could safely say that things were a little bit different. But they were definitely rough around the edges. So we also talked a lot about kindness and respect and some of the life skills that maybe they weren’t getting in any other setting.

JK: Wow! And tell us where your career brought you after that to continue in education?

MJT: Well, because I just fell in love with it, and then I started to have babies, so I became pregnant during that first year of teaching. And so I stepped out of the classroom for a little while, and I was mom to my children. I have two children. And for a couple of years I just stayed home and full-time mom. And then I went and decided that education being definitely a love that I needed a master’s degree so I studied for my master’s in education. And so I was home for about maybe 12 years. for the most part. And then finished my master’s degree, and I went back into the classroom as a middle school teacher. And at the time, my family lived in Italy. We lived on the economy in Milan, Italy, for 7 years. And so my first teaching job after having taken that hiatus was at the American School of Milan, and I worked there for several years. And then when we moved back to the States, I was fortunate to become a founding faculty member at a school that was still a hole in the ground, actually, when I signed my contract. And I became the first eighth grade teacher for a beautiful Catholic school here in Virginia that is just so successful. And I was one of maybe 20 original faculty members that was able to build that school and create a culture and a climate that I’m still very proud of today.

JK: Wow, MJ. And actually, the first three people we’ve been talking to in interviews also created things from scratch. So I’d love to hear more about that school and its values and why you decided to get started in creating something beautiful from nothing.

MJT: Well, I can’t take all the credit. I was hired by a wonderful, very experienced principal. And, like I said, there were about 20 of us that were the original faculty. And it was exciting because you just didn’t know that was a well-established Catholic parish. But there had been no school there. And so, as I said, it was a hole in the ground when I signed my contract, and I watched the building go up. And once we were able to gain access with permits and what have you, we were able to be the ones to put the furniture together and to number all the textbooks, just to start creating a culture and a climate. And because it’s a Catholic school it’s easy to stand firm to the values that you decide are the school’s values. And we created the school’s first mission statement. And interestingly and related to– you are a philanthropist, the mission statement included the words growing in faith, knowledge and service. So it was always a part of everything we did everyday at that school. We believed we were in service to our students, to their parents, and, of course, in service to our God and to one another. It was a really cooperative opportunity. We all got along just beautifully. And when you love to go to work every day, you bring so much more to the position that you’re in. I think there’s – I’m paraphrasing – but there’s that old adage that if you love what you do, you don’t work a day in your life. Just I couldn’t wait to get to school every day. I was always an hour early, and just the feeling I got when I walked through those doors, of being part of something bigger than me, and being part of something really important.

JK: MJ, you mentioned how important your Catholic faith is to you, and how you’re named after Sister Mary Judith, your aunt. Can you tell me more about her life?

MJT: Oh, a saint on Earth. And she died a year ago December. And another opportunity that I had in my life was to be with her when she took her last breath, and that was a pretty profound experience for me. But she was an educator, a 22-year-old recent college graduate, who donned the habit of the Religious of Divine Compassion in New York and went into a classroom with– in those days, there were like 60 kids in a class. And she taught her whole life, over 60 years, eventually becoming principal of a school and retiring when she really had to retire, not because she wanted to. And one of the things that I learned from her and my entire family, really, is the tenets of the Catholic faith and how they relate to Catholic social justice. And again, that brings in the concept of service. And I think about Christ’s Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount. And it’s really what it’s all about. And I think I learned that from my entire family, but specifically from my aunt because, in the Catholic faith, the priests get all the glory, right? They also get all the criticism. But those Sisters back then– they’re so few now, but I mean, their whole life was about service. They didn’t expect anything in return. And it was always quietly behind the scenes just doing the work that needed to be done, little appreciation, little acknowledgment, and no complaining. She was one– I think about the Silent Servant, that she was a very quiet, soft-spoken woman, tremendous faith and tremendous love for her fellows. And I always just pray that I can be just a little bit like her.

JK: Wow, that’s beautiful. One of my favorite philanthropists is Mother Teresa who said, “If you can’t feed 100 people, then feed just 1.” And she’s one of the inspirations behind this podcast.

MJT: I keep her book here. I have Blessed Are You by Mother Teresa. I keep it right here on my desk, and she is quite an inspiration. My aunt that I reference is my mother’s sister. And my mother’s brother is a Catholic priest, and he’s still living. And he actually met Mother Teresa, and–

JK: Wow. That’s pretty cool. I’m sure that’s a special story for your family.

MJT: Yeah. Yeah, it is. He’s a priest that gave a lot of retreats to religious communities over the years. And he happened to give a retreat to her community, and she just happened to be there. So it was really special.

JK: I love hearing about how service was an important part of your family growing up.

MJT: Yeah. Both my parents– I’m emphasizing my mother’s family here insofar as the religious aspect of my experience was. But my dad, he was like the king of volunteers. I mean, growing up, he was a volunteer. Little League coach and he used to volunteer in our church. His brother was actually a city councilman in the city that I grew up in. And so he did a lot of work in the city. I grew up in Waltham, Massachusetts. My father’s father came from Ireland sort of as a stowaway on a cargo ship. He worked his way over and he was a shoemaker and he put all four kids through college and two of them had advanced degrees. And my father was one who if somebody needed something, he was the first one there. When my dad died, large numbers of people came through the wake. The mayor of our city was there. And then there was a man who came in who lived in the town [inaudible]. He lived on the bench in the city square and said that my dad every week came down and gave him five dollars.

JK: Okay. Now, you’re making me cry.

MJT: So I get it from both sides of the family. Again, I only hope that I can be just a part, even just a tiny bit like any of these people that I’ve mentioned to you.

JK: Yeah, you know MJ, I’m a young mother. You’re a grandmother. And you mentioned you spent 12 years with your children. Can you talk about – and we’ve already seen it a little bit – about how important the values that we teach our children, our families are to making the world a better place?

MJT: Well, when you look back when you’re my age, a lot of times you only think about the mistakes. I wish, obviously, that I’d spent more time with my kids. There’s nothing like the gift of time, right ? Whether we’re volunteering or whether we’re taking care of our aging parents or our children. And because I was able to be home with them for much of their early years, I can only hope that they were able to learn somehow through my example because I had all of these wonderful role models. I just hope that there were opportunities for them to see that this type of behavior towards others can be incorporated into your daily life. But the thing that I always said to my children was, we always talked about kindness. And I said to them, “I don’t care if you pump gas for a living when you grow up, if that’s what you want to do. But you better be the best gas pump there ever was.” So for me, the values were the kindness. They were never allowed to say bad words to one another or to tell each other that shut up, which nowadays that’s used so commonly. And for me, it was all about words, how we use our words. And once you say something, you can’t take it back. So it was very important for me to raise children that were kind, kind in word, kind in deed. They were fortunate to have had the experience of living in Italy for seven years. And when we moved back to the United States, I sent them to a Catholic high school which they’ll never forgive me for, but that’s another story. There’s a lot of good things about a Catholic high school. You can teach values. You can talk about– obviously, you can talk about your faith, but you can also talk about the things that are important in living your faith. It’s not only about going to church or saying I’m Catholic or I’m this or I’m that. But it’s about living your faith. And part of that was a requirement in the high school, for them to volunteer. They had to have a certain number of volunteer hours. And I thought that was kind of what sold me on the school because I thought that was important for them to have that experience of, “Gee, I’m just doing for others and getting nothing in return,” although they did get school credit. But in any case, I think as adults– my daughter is a very, very active volunteer for her college. She’s been on the alumni council. She’s in a sorority, and she’s on the national executive council of her sorority. So the message definitely stuck. And they’re both not so kind to me, maybe, as I would like, sometimes. But they’re both kind to others and generous with their time and their money. And that makes me feel good. That makes me feel like I did something right.

JK: Yeah. I understand about not treating your mother with respect, sometimes.

MJT: I think we’re all guilty of that, unfortunately. Oh. Yeah. I was so, so terrible to my mother when I was a teenager. When I think about it, it’s humiliating. We’d go to church– we’d walk to church as a family. We lived about four or five blocks from our church, and we’d walk. And I would walk ahead of them. And I would say to my mother, “Don’t look at me. Don’t talk to me. I don’t want anybody to know that you’re my mother.” Well, of course, they all knew she was my mother. It was our neighborhood church. So terrible. That was terrible.

JK: Oh. God bless all of our mothers.

MJT: She’s a saint. And all the mothers out there. Yeah. She’s a saint in heaven, for sure.

JK: So, MJ, I know that one of your passions right now is improving the equality, especially in our nation. Can you talk a little bit about your philanthropic work, creating more equality in the world?

MJT: Well, sure. And I think it’s a natural tie-in, actually, because as we talk about Catholic social justice, one of the highest priorities in that philosophy is equality. And justice doesn’t mean that we all get the same thing. What it means is that we get what we need. And unfortunately, living outside the Washington, DC area where I am, I have the opportunity to see some pretty destitute individuals that live pretty close to where I live. And I’ve been so lucky and blessed my entire life. I’ve never wanted for anything. I’ve always had everything that I need. And so to see that abject poverty can be pretty momentous. And I also drove cross-country back in 2017, and it was the first time I’d ever really been able to internalize the level of poverty in so many parts of this country especially the Native American areas, the Navajo Nation, which is huge. Those people live in pretty low-quality housing. But back to the Washington, DC, area, since I’m no longer teaching, I felt the need to provide some level of– to continue to be some type of contributing member of society. I had the opportunity, because my daughter lives in DC, to meet a man who was selling newspapers very close to her house, and he is– home-insecure is what I would call it. He has a room. He does pay rent. But he has been homeless and was homeless for quite some time. And now, because he sells these newspapers, he manages to pay rent, and he manages to have some money to support his children.

And so just over time, I would buy his newspaper. We would talk. We got to know one another. His name is Ron Dudley, and he is every single day at his post standing outside the grocery store on 14th Mt. Street in Washington, DC, selling his news newspapers. Rain, shine, cold, heat. He is always there. And he’s really created a community by himself. People just know him and love him. And we’ve become friends. We exchanged phone numbers a couple of years ago, and I told him if he ever needed anything to call me. And we’ve built a relationship such that now he texts me every day and he says, “Good morning,” and, “Have a great day,” and, “Stay safe.”

And he said to me once, “Just because I don’t have everything doesn’t mean I can’t give the people that I care– give to the people that I care about. So on Friday evening, he texted me and he said, “I got my $600 stimulus check from the government.” And he said to me, “Do you need anything?” He’s asking me if I need anything. So I’ve just made a commitment to this man because he’s a good human being. He’s a faith-filled man.

He’s a rapper, but his rap lyrics have become poems. And he’s actually published a book, and I’d love to have folks by his book if they’re interested. I spend a lot of time and effort, and I do give him some money when I can, sponsoring him and trying to help him just as much as I can. And just by being his friend, I think, is what matters the most. People walk by homeless people all day long and don’t even pay attention to them. And I think the whole Catholic social justice teaching is about putting the humanization back into how we interact with one another. And it’s really been such a gift for me to be able to jump that hurdle, the difference between me and a person who’s living on the street because when it all comes down to it, there’s not a lot of difference. I’m just lucky. And I’ve had opportunity. And somebody that grows up in the inner city and is the product of the single mother whose father ended up in prison, there just wasn’t the opportunity for Ron. He’s no less He’s no less intelligent. He’s no less deserving. But he just hasn’t had the luck that I’ve had, essentially. So I spend a lot of time thinking of ways to help him. And then, of course, as an independent consultant for Arbonne, I work a business that is with a company that supports people and planet and puts those values before profit. And that really spoke to my desire to make a difference in terms of our world and the dwindling resources that we have here on Earth and how much we take for granted in so far as what the earth can give to us. And so I’m retired, but I spent a lot of time trying to make a difference. And that’s really important to me.

JK: MJ, I love both your stories about your involvement with Arbonne, which I have greatly benefited from, and I loved your story of Ron. I think I should have him on the podcast. I mean, he sounds like a philanthropist, too. Think of all the ways that he’s created a community you mentioned and all the people whose lives he’s touched. I love the idea that he created his newspaper. And I’d love to read that newspaper. I’ve read Spare Change up here in the Cambridge area before, which I purchased from a…

MJT: In DC, it’s called Street Sense. But the book that he published is his own. He contributes to the Street Sense newspaper, but he published a book on his own. We can get that information for the listeners. I didn’t put the book right in front of me. But obviously, people can contact me, and I can reach out and have the book autographed and send to people, so yes.

JK: That’s so nice. Let’s try to put it in the show notes so that our listeners can log on to my website and find that link in the show notes because I think it’s so important to support Ron.

MJ: That’d be great.

MJT: And it sounds like he really uses the limited resources that he gets to give back to others. And I do see a great point that many times when we pass people who are living on the streets, we just ignore them. And like you said, many of them haven’t had such great opportunities like we did. But they’re no less intelligent. They’re no less worthy of love. They’re no less valuable, particularly as we can agree, in God’s eyes. And so treating them in a way that’s respectful and loving is really important, not just to them but to ourselves. One of the things I love about philanthropy that Denzel Washington said in one of his commencement speeches to Howard University, which you can find on YouTube, he says, “Giving is selfish.” And for a man who’s had so much fame and fortune, he really credits the inspiration and love that God gave him to give back to others in this wonderful warmth that he feels of doing that that is part of our innate way of being which is that giving back feels good. So I just want to end on that note about how important it is to others and ourselves to be giving and that no amount of money qualifies as a philanthropist. You’ve made a difference in all those children’s lives who you educated and gave an opportunity or helped give an opportunity to. I know you’re a humble woman, so you wouldn’t say you gave them an opportunity. But I know you would say you helped give them some level of respect and equality and value.

MJT: If I made a difference in one child’s life, then I feel like my life has been worthwhile. And I just wanted to read one thing from one of Ron’s poems. And this might be a nice way to end as well. The title of the poem is Black Lives Matter, but at the end, he says, “My life is your life, and your life is mine.”

JK: Wow. All right. We’re going to get in touch with Ron. And we’re going to talk to– we’re going to talk to Ron and hear his life story. And I want to thank you so much for sharing with us all about your life, all about your career in education, and all the ways that you’ve given back both to your children and your grandchildren and your business and to the children you’ve educated and especially to Ron. So thank you for sharing today, MJ.

MJT: Thank you so much, Jenn.

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