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Mama Cat leaves St. Louis to begin a new chapter in Florida

"I don't want just to give a meal," Daniels said. "I want to give them their tomorrow."
Credit: St. Louis American

ST. LOUIS — Dr. Cathy “Mama Cat” Daniels to much of the St. Louis community is representative of the generosity of humanity.

Daniels founded her organization, PotBangerz, in the wake of the Ferguson uprising. PotBangerz was born of the idea that Black Lives Matter means all Black lives, including the least seen and least served — and the idea that one way to uplift all people is by serving them good food. Today, PotBangerz is a 501c3 non-profit organization whose donations allow them to buy food to cook meals and snacks for 150-200 members of St. Louis' unhoused community.

"I don't want just to give a meal," Daniels said. "I want to give them their tomorrow."

After the better part of a decade in St. Louis, Daniels is now moving on to Jacksonville, Florida. As part of her farewell, photographer and close friend of Daniels, Theo Welling hosted a talk and then a photo viewing on Friday afternoon at the May Gallery of Webster University. There, he explored a body of work he’s been creating around Mama Cat for around a year: a photo-documentary project titled “Mama Cat: Works in Progress,” which follows the daily life of Mama Cat and the rotating cast of dozens of characters that make up the PotBangerz family. 

Welling said one inspiring aspect of Daniels’ presence in the community is her consistency: some weeks, she works with a large support team, and other weeks she only has a few people. Daniels herself, however, seems to be omnipresent: Welling said the common denominator in the work is always herself. 

In addition to their meal preparation and delivery work, PotBangerz with the political support of Congresswoman Cori Bush was approved a $165,300 grant to open an inclusive (four to six month) transitional house called Mildred's Casa de Paz in Pine Lawn in August. The house will also offer job training for all women, including cisgender, queer, and transgender women.

In addition, Mildred's Casa de Paz is partnering with local organizations that offer placement assistance, counseling, transportation, medical referrals, and information regarding life skills. 

For her farewell, before her departure, Daniels donned her continental Africa earrings and described herself to the audience as a humanitarian activist, mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. As the community prepares to say goodbye to the beloved activist, she reminded everyone there when you become aware of the issues turning a blind eye is not an option.

Daniels said the concept of feeding the unhoused while also speaking on the fight for justice, came to her as she joined the community rallying in frustration and grief after the murder of Michael Brown in 2014. She began to bring food to the protesters, and has never stopped “feeding the movement." 

"In one day, I saw her prepare a reception for Ferguson's first female African American Mayor Ella Jones, find a domestic abuse victim a room, and finish the day by preparing the PotBangerz meal for hundreds of people," Welling said. 

Daniels' inspiring story sheds light on life’s struggles and triumphs, as she has travelled across the country creating community wherever she goes.  She was born in Harlem and raised in the Bronx. In adulthood, she moved around the country and was unhoused in 1989 with three kids, which brought her the strong empathy for the struggles of unhoused people she still carries today. She later met Perez, a St. Louis native and retired sailor, who became her husband. Perez, whom Theo refers to as Mama Cat's best friend, is very supportive of her community missions in his hometown.

Daniels said Jacksonville will become her new home and said she will bring her family and her PotBangerz mission of aiding the unhoused to the large Florida city.

"Even though I'm moving, I'm still here for the fight," Mama Cat said. "I'm not going anywhere."

When thinking about the long-term future of Potbangerz, she spoke with conviction, "Hopefully, there won't be a need for PotBangerz, and we got to work toward that," Daniels said.

Welling shared what he found compelling about Daniels from their first encounters.

"I was struck by the fact that not only did she remember me, but she remembered the context of our first meeting," Welling said. "I learned that Mama Cat seems to remember everyone she's ever met, which I believe is one of the many driving forces in her efforts. For most of us, we might see a person in need and just go on with the day. Not Mama Cat: she remembers, learns their name, thinks about them, finds how she can help, then follows through.”

As a proud military mother and wife, Daniels said her motto is to work within the system while also fiercely advocating for change.

"We deal with homelessness, and we deal with injustice. It is everywhere.knew when I came to St. Louis, there would be more work required than other places," said Daniels referring to the racial tension. 

What humbles Daniels and gives her the will to continue pushing for change is simply her identity and all that she's overcome. "I'm ever mindful of the fact that I'm a Black woman in America,"

Daniels said the most significant takeaway is not uniformity but embracing individual skills.

"I am trying to lay the groundwork," Daniels said. "Everybody's role in the movement is not just to be on the street. We all got a job, and we have to live in our purpose. I am trying to lift those with the least among us."

Welling and Daniels shared that there might be a book in the future which is currently in its infancy stages.

The exhibition “Mama Cat: Works in Progress” at the May Gallery of Webster University has been extended to Fri., Oct. 1, 2021.