April 05, 2010 12:00 PM

MARCIA MERRICK, 61

Kansas City, Mo.

Bright-eyed and fully dressed despite the hour-4:30 a.m.-Marcia Merrick strides into her kitchen on five hours of sleep, slaps a loaf of bread onto the counter, opens a jar of peanut butter and starts spreading. By the time the sun is up on this recent Friday, she’s packed 400 sandwiches in paper bags with chips, raisins and homemade cookies. Also included: handwritten notes with uplifting messages. “Consider this a hug,” reads one.

And then there’s the flesh-and-blood squeeze she gives a man dressed in tattered layers as she hands him his brown bag from her beat-up white minivan. “You doing all right?” she asks. “Hanging in there,” he replies. This meal is one of 400 Marcia hands out-in morning and evening shifts-to the homeless on streets, under overpasses and near railroad tracks every day through her nonprofit, Reaching Out Inc. (reachingoutinc.org). “These people are wounded,” says Marcia, who launched her organization in 2001. “The sack lunches are a way to their hearts.” Marcia, who relies on private donations and recruits schools, churches and friends to help, says her feeling for the forgotten goes back to a tough childhood. “People would go, ‘You’re not going to amount to a hill of beans,'” she recalls. She found her anchor in religion, volunteering as a teen on church mission trips. “I sensed you can make a difference,” she says, and “I felt joy.”

She started handing out 20 sack lunches at a time on street corners when her kids were in school. Now that they’re grown, she devotes herself full-time to her work-which also includes helping people down on their luck get furniture, find jobs and pay medical bills. The divorced mom, who gets by on alimony, lives on a shoestring budget so every penny can go toward helping people like Theresa, 52, who has been on the streets for two years and often counts Marcia’s lunch as her day’s only solid meal. Says Theresa: “She’s a great friend.”

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