In 2004, The Matthews House was nonexistent. The idea for the nonprofit, however, was just getting started. Jerri Schmitz, founder and Executive Director of The Matthews House, had a conversation with a young man in Old Town in 2004. She learned he was homeless and couch surfing after aging out of foster care. “I actually gave him $10 if he would promise me he would put more minutes [on his phone],” Jerri said. “Then we could keep in touch with each other and I could see if I could help him.”
Jerri and her social worker friend, Sara Mitchell, did research on the options available to kids who age out of the foster care system in Larimer County and found that there were no services available. To Jerri, who was a high school educator and coach in Phoenix, Arizona, prior to starting The Matthews House, that was unacceptable.
In 1999, Jerri moved to Fort Collins. Soon after the move she was helping people who were struggling with various issues, including homelessness. Jerri began offering her spare bedrooms to people, resulting in 16 individuals living with her at different times over the next two years. She decided to formalize this work and wrote a business plan to start a nonprofit, using her own book proposal title “Live the Victory” as a starting point. “I had a couple of book proposals out based around my coaching, how to live life, don’t let fear keep you on the bench,” Jerri said. However, her plans to write a book evolved into something much bigger. “It boiled down to I don’t think the world needs one more book. I need to take what I was going to write in the book and really formalize it into a program to help people.”
Jerri filed for 501(c)(3) status in 2005, began writing grants, hired Sara as the Clinical Director and purchased a home in Old Town. The doors opened in January 2006, beginning the Empowering Youth Program. “I didn’t want it to be an office building,” Jerri said. “I wanted it to really feel like home and be that safe harbor for teens who were out there on their own. I wanted these kids to feel like they were valued and we cared about them.”
Jerri and Mitchell notified the Department of Human Services Child Welfare Department about their nonprofit designed to help kids who age out of the foster care system. The department supported their mission and asked them to manage their Chafee federal grant. They immediately welcomed 84 kids. More staff was hired to accommodate the number of youth being served, and Jerri said she began wondering about what would have happened if they had reached these kids’ families before they were placed in foster care. Taking action to help families before kids are removed from their homes led to the creation of the Strengthening Families Program in 2010.
“I felt like what I started in 2006 was helping pull kids out of this raging river,” Jerri said. “If we can start working with families when kids are younger, maybe these kids won’t end up at the bottom of the stream.”
In 2012, Jerri was asked to co-chair a family consumer council to discuss bringing the settlement home concept to Fort Collins. Based on independent research and local focus groups, it was clear the community would benefit from a location offering a variety of consolidated services. The first center opened in 2012 and the second in 2015. The idea of community taking care of community is embodied at the Community Life Centers where anyone can go to receive help with a variety of issues as part of our Building Community Program. “Our goal is to help build resiliency and build community,” said Nicole Armstrong, Executive Program Director at The Matthews House. “We really value serving the people that we have the opportunity to walk alongside. It’s an enriching experience for us and we are so thankful that we have the opportunity.” Nicole started working at The Matthews House in 2008 as a youth transition facilitator when there were just seven employees.
The Matthews House’s growth has been surprising even to Jerri, who believed she would be helping 20-25 youth a year with two staff in 2006. Now, The Matthews House has over 40 full-time staff, 20 part-time, and served over 2,500 youth and families last year.
“I’ve seen our ability to meet the needs of the community,” Nicole said. “I’ve seen intentional work done to build programming that is effective in our community and continues to serve the population that we always have desired to serve.” For the past 12 years, The Matthews House has grown to serve youth, families and the community as a whole, tangibly helping the Fort Collins community.
And a conversation started it all.