Mary Odano was a mother to many.

She was a mother to her own children and grandchildren, and to the children she baby-sat and the ones she guided when she was a crossing guard years ago near East End Community School. She was a mother to the young ones who learned Acholi phrases and dances from her, to the grown ones who still turned to her for support.

Mary Odano, with two of her grandchildren. Photo courtesy of Rita Achiro

“If there was anybody that didn’t have a mother, they looked up to her,” said Rita Achiro, her niece.

A worker found Odano’s body in a maintenance area outside her apartment building on Stevens Avenue in Portland on Feb. 10, and an autopsy showed that she died from hypothermia. She was 67.

Her family had reported her missing a week prior, saying they had last seen her Jan. 27. The National Weather Service reported that day that the high temperature in Portland was 22 degrees and the low was minus 3. The Portland Police Department circulated her photo on social media and put out a call for information.

Asked this week what other steps they took to find Odano, a spokesman said officers searched the area, using K-9 teams in nearby Baxter Woods and Evergreen Cemetery, and collected video footage from businesses and residences.


Police have shared few details about what they believe happened, and now her relatives are left with questions about how their source of comfort, who had traveled so far in life, could meet such a lonely death so close to her home.

“We thank everyone for reposting, sharing and helping us find her, although it was too late,” her family wrote in a GoFundMe campaign to help with funeral expenses. “No one deserves to die alone, especially during this cold Maine winter.”

Her niece said Odano came to the United States more than 20 years ago as a refugee from what is now known as South Sudan. She did not often speak of the war in her native country or the trauma she experienced in her own life. People who knew her said she preferred to turn her attention to others, especially her family.

She loved looking after her grandchildren, who knew that she was strict but also that she kept hard candies in her pockets for them. She didn’t have a cellphone, so when relatives realized she was missing, they called around to one another’s houses, expecting to find her on a visit as usual.

Last year, Achiro, 31, shared publicly that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She said she was nervous about how her experience would be received in the South Sudanese community, where talking about such things can be taboo. But the next time she saw Odano, her aunt wrapped her in an embrace.

“I got a hug from somebody who has been through so much,” Achiro said. “It helped me in so many ways during that time when I needed that comfort.”


Odano could be quiet if she didn’t know you and teasing if she did. She didn’t speak much English or drive, but she liked to go on walks to stay active. People who lived in her senior housing complex and in her neighborhood knew her for her warm smile.

John Sebit met Odano as her caseworker from USA Family Well Being, a mental health agency in Portland. He said she had a nurturing personality despite all she had endured. She had three children, including a daughter who lives in Australia, and she talked often to Sebit about how she wanted to visit.

“Being a mother is an unending journey,” Sebit said. “She always talked about that as part of her life.”

Martin Sungoyo, the agency’s office coordinator, said he is distressed that Odano was missing for a full week before she was found. He and his co-workers said they want to understand how this tragedy occurred and make sure it never happens again.

“We cannot lose somebody like this without any accountability,” Sungoyo said.

Achiro said her aunt was always one to reach out to community members in mourning and take care of their needs. Now her family is making arrangements for her own burial. The GoFundMe campaign had raised $3,310 of a $15,000 goal by Wednesday. Achiro said the COVID-19 pandemic will prevent some relatives, including Odano’s daughter in Australia, from traveling to the United States for her burial. But she said many others would gather Saturday to honor her place in the South Sudanese community and to sing songs written in her memory.

“She would always be that mother figure that would always be at these funeral gatherings,” Achiro said. “Culturally, if somebody passed away, we would gather and sleep at that that person’s house for three days as a form of mourning. Mary, she felt like she always had to be there for a longer amount of time, so she was a comfort.”

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