Mother Mercy

10/31/2005 at 06:00 AM EST

Mother Mercy
Sandra LaDay
Peter Yang
PEOPLE and CBS's Early Show partnered for a five-part series, "Heroes Among Us." This annual series pays tribute to five individuals whose stories of courage and commitment, strength and compassion were featured in PEOPLE during the past year. This story's honoree is Sandra LaDay, originally featured in PEOPLE November 22, 2004.

Until this year, life wasn't too kind to Yolanda Green. At 43, she is divorced and can't work because of rheumatoid arthritis, glaucoma and other ailments. On her $543 in monthly disability and Social Security checks, she supports six children under 13, none of them hers: She has legal custody of four of her grandchildren, whose mother was in prison, and two of her grandnephews. The holidays are especially wrenching for Green; it's tough just to get through each day, much less play Santa to a half-dozen kids.

Then, last Christmas, she saw a flyer about Sandra LaDay and her charity, People Supporting People, which serves the poor and homeless of Port Arthur, Texas. Green called – and Hurricane Sandra swept in.

"She took the kids to get their hair cut, then to a Christmas party," says Green. "None of them had ever been to one."

Within days LaDay had supplied the family with food, furniture and clothes. "I can call on her for anything and she makes it happen," says Green. "When my daughter needed seizure medicine, Sandra raised the money. When we run short of groceries, she helps. We're alive because of her."

Thanks to LaDay, hundreds of others also have better lives in Port Arthur, a struggling oil-refinery town on the Gulf Coast. Operating out of a gas station turned shelter in the city's poorest neighborhood, LaDay, 52, is a one-woman charity machine – her work all the more remarkable in light of her own, seemingly staggering personal tragedies.

Her particular brand of do-gooding defies categorization: If a family lacks a refrigerator, she'll find a donated one. If they have nowhere to sleep, she'll get them beds. School supplies? She'll convince a stationery store to give them away. Her phone rings incessantly, and she listens patiently, at times tearily, to each caller.

Once a month, LaDay turns her shelter into a cafeteria, where she and volunteers – including her husband, Willie, 52, a disabled roofer – have dished out up to 700 meals in a day. She also opens her home for more intimate dinners for the poor on a glass table set with china and crystal flutes – donated by people holding garage sales. "Some of these people have never had anyone wait on them," she says in her soft drawl. "I sit them down and cook for them so they feel like they're worth something."

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