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A Discussion With Mary King,

founder of our beloved STARS

Among Mary King’s most priceless treasures is a ceramic magnet painted in vibrant colors commemorating one of STARS’s past events. And although it currently sits broken on her kitchen counter in pieces, she knows her husband “can fix anything.” At 91 years young, the visionary behind STARS knows there’s always hope behind every challenge—great or small. “Nobody should ever be in a place without hope,” King says. “There has to be somebody that will help.”

Born in Texas and raised in California, King was a high school teacher and debate coach after graduating from college in the 1950s. “I had wonderful students, and we went to national tournaments very frequently. It was great,” she exclaims.

When her first marriage ended in divorce, King settled in Arizona. “My folks were here, and I wanted my boys to have my dad as their male model,” she says, adding that she needed a change of scenery. “It was a good move. L.A. was so crowded. People would talk about traffic in Arizona, and I’d just laugh and say, ‘You’ve never seen Santa Monica Boulevard.’ It was such a mess,” she chuckles.  While seeking a part-time job, King learned one of her neighbors was employed as an information officer with the City of Scottsdale. Since her first husband was a politician, King had first-hand experience with city and state politics. In fact, she met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when, during some intense campaigning, they attended a community church where he was speaking.

“We went up and shook hands with this bright and friendly young pastor,” she says. “We never dreamed what would happen.”

After sharing her experiences with the neighbor, King felt encouraged to apply for a position with the city. She was hired soon after as an intern to work on special projects. When a resident shared with the council that the city lacked programs for adults with special needs, King received her first assignment. “They handed me a folder and told me to find out if we had something or not. I did the research and found out there wasn’t anything,” she says. “That was the beginning of STARS.”

The request came on the cusp of broadcast journalist Geraldo Rivera’s reporting in 1972 on the neglect and abuse of patients with intellectual disabilities at Willowbrook State School and Letchworth Village, both in New York State. It hit close to home for King whose son was struck by a vehicle as a toddler and left with a massive head injury.

“He recovered, but the doctors told me he’d never read, never work,” she says. Refusing to accept their medical opinions, King sought out other programs and professionals. Her son is thriving today, but admits it isn’t easy to raise a child with special needs, especially without the resources or funds. Looking back, King believes the culmination of events was a fortunate stroke of serendipity. “I was put in the right place at the right time, and that’s just a godsend,” she says. But the fruition of STARS wasn’t without challenges. “We asked ourselves, ‘Do we have enough money to make payroll?’ But I had to keep going, there wasn’t any choice,” she says. “The participants were so happy, our employees were so happy.”

King says they ventured on with various fundraising events and community support, as well as forming an auxiliary group to help raise funds, which eventually became known as “Las Madrinas” or “the Godmothers.” Community leaders such as Herb Drinkwater, the late and former mayor of Scottsdale, also showed continuous support. “Bless his heart. He’d come any time we’d call,” she says, recalling a memory that remains inscribed on her heart. “[One of our participants said] he knew the mayor and the mayor said, ‘Do you know I’m so proud of knowing you?’”

King says those moments are treasures in her heart because she’s directly witnessed STARS’ impact, especially in the workforce. “People with disabilities are valuable to the community. The community is better as individuals and as groups when we have contact with people with disabilities,” she says. “They’re drawn to our hearts, and when we have the opportunity to see them and visit with them…it touches your heart and makes everything better.” Written by Julia De Simone

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