Hayes, a 45-year resident of Glen Ellyn, worked for the food bank for 25 years. She was instrumental in shaping the organization from its modest beginnings starting first in Carol Stream, then in St. Charles, to become the 13-county food clearinghouse it is today, said Steve Ericson, who worked with her from 1994 until her retirement in 2008.
“Mary, to me, was just the inspiration of the food bank,” said Ericson, who is the director of food procurement for the food bank.
He said Hayes became a personal friend to him in addition to a professional colleague.
“Her heart was as big as anybody's I’ve ever known. She was very selfless,” Ericson said. “I admired her. She raised five kids essentially by herself and still had time in her life to do what she did to help start the food bank.”
The food bank actually started in Wheaton, but its first warehouse was in Carol Stream before it moved to St. Charles, where it operated from 1995 to 2011 and was called the Bethlehem Center Food Bank. It changed its name to the Northern Illinois Food Bank in 2000 and moved when it opened a distribution center in Geneva in 2011, Ericson said.
Spokeswoman Jennifer Nau said in the food bank's first full year in 1984, it served 64,000 pounds of food to 80 food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters in a 10-county region.
By 1994, the food bank was serving its current 13 counties, Nau said, now providing more than 65.5 million meals every year to families across northern Illinois.
“In 1994, [Hayes] helped lead the effort to join Feeding America because prior to that, we were not a member,” Nau said. “It allowed us to be part of the larger [national] network fighting hunger, connecting us with 200 food banks across the United States. They have a lot more resources, a national office and partners to talk to about the work we are doing.”
Hayes was instrumental in identifying and addressing food instability in the community. She personally delivered meals during the summer to 50 children a week in her white Nissan, the first incarnation of the program that now has 10 drivers delivering nearly 340,000 meals each summer, food bank officials said.
Hayes also was grandmother to nine children. Her son, Sean Hayes, portrayed Jack McFarland on the NBC sitcom “Will & Grace” from 1998 to 2006. The show was revived in 2017.
“There's no question that Mary's work has touched the lives of tens of thousands of people in our community,” Northern Illinois Food Bank CEO Julie Yurko said in a news release. “We are all better for having known her and her legacy will be felt for years to come.”