The premise of Mike Rowe’s Facebook show “Returning the Favor” is very simple: Locate treasured members of the community who continually pour themselves out for others, and pay them back as a show of gratitude.
It’s a wonderful idea, and the latest episode made for amazing viewing. Mike and his crew headed to San Antonio, Texas, to meet an elderly lady who has committed years of her life to dishing out second chances.
The woman’s name is Alice, but she goes by “Ma” because “she’s like the mother of San Antonio,” explained “Returning the Favor” producer Sarah Yourgrau.
Ma has become well-known for employing individuals who have been recently released from prison and are at a high risk of re-offending. “She gives people a chance to come back who have reformed their behavior, who have the best intentions in mind to better themselves, and who are looking for an opportunity to do that. She gives them that opportunity.”
“I was born in New Orleans,” explained the 89-year-old, who runs “Ma Harper’s Creole Kitchen”. “During my life, I’ve had a lot of setbacks. I was the second oldest of 16 siblings. We had very little. I’m not ashamed about it because it made me grow stronger.”
While most people Ma’s age would be enjoying retirement, why did she chose to continue helping those who are in difficult situations?
“My reason for helping people is that if it had not been for people helping us, I wouldn’t even be here. I started helping those that come out of incarceration because I feel that if they had a chance in the beginning, they wouldn’t have gone to jail,” she explained. “That’s in my heart. People do things because they don’t have any other choice. Everybody is worth something, but they need somebody to know the value that they are.”
Bustling around the kitchen with boundless energy, Mike posed the question that was on the mind of every viewer: “What does stop you?”
“Nothing. I’ve had five surgeries, nervous breakdowns, two heart attacks,” Ma reeled off casually — but she’s still going strong.
One of her worker’s Albert struggled to find work after leaving prison; that was until he met Ma. “Ma has been a big part of my life,” Albert told Rowe. “She said, ‘are you looking for a job young man?’ I said, ‘yeah.’ They hired me right on the spot. I started working the same day.”
“It’s quite amazing to have a woman step into your life like that, knowing nothing about your past,” explained Albert, who was incarcerated for five years. “Ma is my second chance.”
When Ma asked Albert what he was in prison for, he had to be honest: armed robbery and possession, among other serious offenses.
But he never expected her compassionate response:
“That was not you. That was part of you, but I’m gonna take that part out,” Ma told Albert without a second thought.
And her work does not go unnoticed. Albert said that every person in the town knows Ma Harper. “The upper class to the lower class, she helps everybody,” he added.
Now, the crew is determined to return the favor and make Ma’s life a little easier. In 2002, Ma’s dishwasher broke down. Without the funds required to repair it, the restaurant staff have been forced to wash every dish by hand.
“We’re gonna give her a brand new dishwasher,” Sarah Yourgrau, Mike Rowe’s producer chimed in, adding that they would cook some food and throw this ultimate hostess a party for once!
“We should give her an enormous tip,” Mike said.
“How does $20,000 sound?” Sarah replied.
While Mike distracted Ma by taking her to meet with a group of community leaders to talk more about the “Second Chance” ethos, a team worked to install a state-of-the-art dishwasher in her beloved restaurant. After a few hours of Mike stalling, trying to buy as much time as he could, the dishwasher installation was finished and it was time for the big reveal.
If that wasn’t enough to overwhelm this wonderful lady, the crew also gathered a whole host of Ma’s former employees, each one of whom had a story to tell about how this extraordinary character lifted them out of their mess and gave them another shot.
When Ma spotted the dishwasher, she became absolutely speechless. Her reaction was just brilliant.
“We’ve met a lot of folks, and you are right at the top of the heap,” Mike explained to Ma. “These people adore you.”
“So, along with your dishwasher, we have a home-cooked meal and the best folks in the world here to pay homage to you.”
Oh, and the tip.
“One other thing,” Mike said. “This is a little backward. You normally wouldn’t give a tip until the meal is done, but we thought we’d give you the tip first,” Mike explained. “For all that you’ve done, all that you’re doing and all that we want to keep you doing, we thought $20,000 might be a good way to help.”
“I can’t thank you enough,” said Ma, who was completely overwhelmed by the occasion. “I can’t thank God enough.”
Watch the full episode below:
Mike and the crew head south to San Antonio, Texas to meet up with Alice "Ma" Harper at Ma Harper's Creole Kitchen. For the last 25 years, Ma has been serving up award winning gumbo to the locals as well as second chances to the formerly incarcerated, who otherwise would have nowhere else to turn for employment and guidance.
Posted by Returning The Favor on Monday, March 19, 2018