by Polly Keary, Editor
Editors Note: With this story, we continue our annual Featured Non-profit series, in which each week through the holiday season we highlight the work of a local non-profit, including ways to help in this season of giving. We encourage support for these worthy charities.
The two-story house in the shadow of the prison is a home like any other.
It just gets a few more visitors.
It gets about 4,000 of them a year, in fact.
It is Matthew House, and for more than 30 years it has been a hostel and hospitality center to thousands of the family members and loved ones of people incarcerated in the prison just up the hill from where it stands.
And it is headquarters for many other services that help hold families together while one of the family’s members is serving time.
On Fridays, when weekend visiting begins, the small house fills up quickly. People coming from out of the area come to check into one of the small guest rooms where they can stay overnight. Others arrive for hot coffee or to prepare children for visits with fathers.
Many just come to spend time in a place where they and their children will not be judged for their association with a prisoner, but will be treated nicely.
If they are hungry, they eat. If they are thirsty, there are bottles of water handy. If they find that what they are wearing doesn’t meet visit room regulations, there is a closet from which they can select another outfit to wear.
And often, there is food on hand that they can take home, for families in which a parent is incarcerated often face poverty.
Thursday, in the kitchen, Matthew House Director Linda Paz, a New York minister who ran a large women’s shelter in Everett before taking over the Monroe non-profit, sat next to a shoulder-high stack of potato boxes. Each year, a local potato farmer gifts her with thousands of pounds of potatoes, and she gives them away to prison families and others in need.
“I gave away 5,000 pounds of potatoes over Thanksgiving,” she said.
It is never easy to raise money to assist the families of prisoners, Paz said, but this year has been very busy, and she’s even lower on food than usual.
“I can’t keep up with the food,” she said. “I even had to go to the food bank and said we were out of food. Maltby sent me a little food and so did Monroe.”
The good-humored Paz mentioned a few other things it is hard to keep up with.
“You know how fast toilet paper goes?” she said. “We have 4,000 people come through here in a year. Imagine 4,000 people coming through your house.”
About 2,000 of those people stay overnight, too, she said.
And some of them stay longer than that.
“We had a lady, she was 82 or 84,” said Paz. “She lives on California’s Oregon border. She drove up by herself, because her son was having trouble with his kidneys. She stayed for two weeks.”
The elderly woman said that she wasn’t afraid to drive once she got on the freeway.
“You just go straight,” she said.
But there are many people who don’t have transportation to see their loved ones, so Matthew House volunteer drivers run two vans that shuttle people to visit prisons around the state. Each month, nearly 200 people use the vans to visit about 150 inmates.
“These families really put out a lot to come see their inmates,” said volunteer driver Don Dermenstien, who shares driving duties with his wife. “For one visit, they might be eight hours on a bus, and some of them have to use a walker.”
“How committed are they, to do that?” said Matthew House board member Andrea Caldwell.
She, too, noted that Matthew House is a hard charity for which to raise money, because of its association with prisoners, even though “we don’t involve the inmates,” she said.
Help from the community is what keeps Matthew House going, though, said Paz.
It doesn’t always take the form of money.
“People ask what we need, I say, ‘if you’re going to Costco, how about grabbing us a case of water? Or a case of toilet paper?’ Everyone laughs at that, but it’s constantly moving.”
Matthew House is especially busy through the holidays, when people travel all from all over the world to see inmates, and when Matthew House works to provide extra food and needs for families.
Then in January, things quiet a bit. But they never quiet all the way. With Washington’s largest prison just up the hill, it is guaranteed to be an important resource for families trying to stay together, which is shown to cut recidivism nearly in half. And its key mission remains to ease the suffering of the children who have an incarcerated parent.
“It’s amazing to think this little place has been here more than 30 years,” said Paz. “I can’t even think of all the lives it has touched.”
To support Matthew House, call (360) 794-8720 to learn how to volunteer, donate, or buy one of the 2013 calendars of Paz’s scenic photos of the region, which are a fundraiser for the non-profit. Also see www.matthewhousemonroe.org, or send donations to Matthew House, P.O. Box 201, Monroe, WA 98272.