COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Andrea-Maria O’Neill’s phone rang in the middle of a rainy summer night.
A friend was on the line, telling her a family of seven had just been evicted from their apartment, said O’Neill, 60, of Laurel.
“I went straight to my car and picked them up,” she said. “Then all of a sudden I said to myself, `Okay, Andrea-Maria, now that they’re here, what are you going to do?’ ”
She did what she could. She fed them, then took them to a shelter run by Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s charity sisters in Anacostia, where O’Neill volunteers her time counseling AIDS patients and transporting food. The sisters soon found the family a place to stay.
For that act of compassion and numerous others – helping Spanish-speaking job applicants translate a test and preparing holiday gift baskets for the less fortunate – O’Neill was honored this month. She was given the Woman of Color of the Year Award by the University of Maryland, where she has worked for 32 years in dining services.
“You know, this is the first award I didn’t have to sing and dance for,” said O’Neill, who used to perform professionally in her native Cuba.
The university recognized O’Neill for translating a food service examination into Spanish. The exam is designed to make sure food handlers are aware of hygienic food serving and storage procedures.
Granted official state approval in 1995, the translation is available to Spanish-speaking food service applicants across Maryland.
Patricia Higgins, director of dining services at the university, also praised O’Neill’s efforts to brighten the Christmas spirit of many employees who might not be able to afford elaborate feasts.
“I remember one time going into a grocery store and I saw her there, loading carts of food into a flatbed truck,” recalled Higgins, who has worked with O’Neill since she came to Maryland in 1964.
“I said, `Mrs. O’Neill, you can’t possibly eat all of that.’ She said she was gathering groceries to feed her families.”
Outside the office, O’Neill does not rest.
A devout Roman Catholic, O’Neill said she believes in giving “free and joyful service to the poorest of poor.”
Through her work with the sisters in Anacostia, she has helped countless AIDS patients in their most trying times.
“It’s a beautiful thing to hold the hand of someone who is dying on you and doesn’t have a family member, a friend in the world,” O’Neill said.
Her face lights up as she recalls her first meeting with Mother Teresa, who modeled the Gift of Peace home in Anacostia after her House of the Dead in Calcutta.
“Mother sat next to me in a big van as we came back from the airport,” O’Neill said. “I couldn’t speak. I just kept crying. She said to me: `Shh … cry tomorrow. Not tonight. Cry tomorrow.’ ”
As a child, O’Neill said she was skeptical of church figures. “I remember exactly what I said at my first confession. I said, `Father, I don’t trust any of you.’ ”
But she embraced the church’s teachings on charity.
“I must have been about 10 years old and I bought a nickel of candies from the store,” she said, recalling her girlhood as a Cuban immigrant in Tampa, Fla.
“Near our home was an orphanage run by the [Catholic] sisters,” she said. “I remember distinctly going in and giving the children my candy, thinking, `I know not all of the children are going to get it, but at least some will.’ ”
O’Neill has gone through many incarnations in her 60 years, including as a singer and dancer.
Crowned “Miss WFLA – Radio Queen of Florida” in 1954, O’Neill performed at USO shows across Alaska after her stepfather, who was in the Air Force, moved her family from Tampa to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska. She had her own show, “Fiesta in Elmendorf.”
Her first marriage was to a piano player in Alaska with whom she had her son, Martin, 38.
She separated from her husband and returned to Cuba in the late 1950s to become a professional singer.
“You could see me singing on one channel an aria from `Madame Butterfly’ and on another singing something very popular,” recalled O’Neill.
She married a show director in Cuba, but left the country, pregnant with her daughter, on Jan. 18, 1963.
O’Neill had her second child, a daughter, in Maryland, where her mother and stepfather had settled. She began working at the university in the dining services personnel office in 1964.
The switch to the life of an accounting clerk was difficult.
“I went through years of feeling I was buried alive,” she said. “It was really hard because I was used to living my life at night.”
Her daughter, Ana Maria Melgarejo, 33, sees a common thread in the many experiences in her mother’s life.
“Whether she was feeding their souls through entertainment or feeding them through her work at the food bank, it was all borne out of the desire to help people, to bring something nurturing into their lives,” Melgarejo said.
O’Neill said her broad spectrum of experiences has helped her relate to people. “My life is many lived by one individual,” she said. “It seems the Lord takes me from one place to the next.”