Restaurant owner, 86, honored for giving second chances

"Ma" Harper cooking at her restaurant (KABB)

You can take Alice "Ma" Harper out of New Orleans, but you can't New Orleans out of "Ma".

"Here you have a Creole gumbo," she said while serving up a bowl at her East Side area restaurant.

The former aircraft mechanic at Lackland Air Force Base turned award-winning chef, is living out a lifelong dream as 1 of 16 siblings in her family.

"All of us had something to do when you get a bunch of kids like that," she told Fox San Antonio's Ryan Wolf. "Everybody has a chore. I chose cooking."

But Ma Harper's Creole Kitchen on 1816 North New Braunfels Avenue in San Antonio isn't just about serving up Cajun-style flavored food.

"We learned to help everybody," she said while referring to life growing up.

"Ma" prides herself on giving back to others at her restaurant.

"It was help that helped me, and I told God that if I ever got grown and was able to, I'd help anyone who come into my path," she said.

The 86-year-old feeds the homeless, helps veterans and employs people who are out of jail on probation.

"I hire all second chances because God gave me a second chance," she explained. "And I will die giving second chances a job. As long as I'm open."

Her motherly guidance has been just the right recipe for more than a dozen people who've spent time behind bars.

Diann Vaughn was one of them.

She said "Ma" helped turn her life around after a theft conviction.

"What are you all doing in here?" "Ma" asked when she saw Diann come into her kitchen by surprise.

"'Ma,' I came to talk to you," Diann responded.

She secretly nominated "Ma" for the CASH FOR KINDNESS award.

"You do everything possible for everybody," she told her while holding both her hands. "I want you to know how much you are appreciated because I know you don't feel like it. But you are very much appreciated."

Diann's heartfelt words brought "Ma" to tears.

Her sincere gratitude was described as one of the proudest moments for "Ma" since starting to work 75 years ago.

"How does it feel knowing that you're making a difference?" Wolf asked "Ma" who today suffers from a pinched nerve and osteoporosis.

"It makes a big difference," she said. "A real big difference to know that somebody cares."

The surprise only got better when Wolf shared news of her cash award.

"Fox San Antonio recognizes those who are making a difference in this community," he told her. "'Ma,' in my hand, I have a surprise for you."

Wolf took money out of his pocket and handed it to "Ma," whose hand trembled.

"$400," she said with a soft whisper. "Free?"

"Ma" immediately said she'd be using her award money to help her employees.

"I'll certify you, Phillip, Blanca," she said, while listing names out loud.

They're all second chance workers, just like Diann, who "Ma" wants to get certified to handle food in the kitchen.

She said she can now afford to pay the fees for each of them.

"The reason why, once they're certified they go back out and can go anywhere and get a job at any restaurant," she said with a smile.

"Ma" thanked God and Diann for the surprise she'll never forget.

"God is true to his word," she said. "That's the only way I can put it."

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