Ever feel like you’re fumbling for what to say when someone has had a loss, or feel so uncomfortable you avoid the person altogether? Jean Matheny went through this with others after losing her husband suddenly. But, she found a way to put people at ease.
“After my husband passed away, I noticed people were treating me differently or avoiding me all together,” she said. “I knew they weren’t trying to shun me or anything, they just didn’t know what to say.”
So she went to the places she was involved with, such as the teachers’ lounge, to try and put them at ease.
“I said, ‘I know you don’t know what to say to me, and that’s OK, but I wanted you to know I’m still the same person,’” Matheny recalled. “‘So just treat me the same. You don’t have to say anything special to me. If you want to you can say you’re sorry for my loss — that’s enough.’”
She said she could feel the tension subside, and everyone seem to feel relaxed again. Helping others, even when she is hurting, is just who she is.
Tom Billings tells of his experience of Matheny on his first visit to the Soups On soup kitchen in Langley. Uneasy about not knowing anyone, he peered into the doorway when Jean spied him and marched over to welcome him. She introduced Billings to someone else eating there, and helped him get his food.
“She made sure I felt comfortable before she went back to her duties,” he said.
The soup kitchen, or Soup’s On, began in 2003 by Sharon Giberson and Connie Angst, and serves free meals every Tuesday and Thursday. Soon after the soup kitchen began, Jean Matheny got involved and was welcomed as the leader. Matheny has 19 years of kitchen and cooking experience for large groups. She was the South Whidbey Middle and High School kitchen manager and cook.
“I started out as a baker and cook and was hired by Toni Hagglund, who was my boss for several years and the best boss in all this world,” Matheny recalled. “She never lorded over anyone, or intimidated people; she worked alongside me and caused me all to feel at ease.”
Toni Hagglund says she’s sure people don’t realize just how big a job volunteering at the soup kitchen is.
“She not only prepares the menus for Thursdays, she cooks, she orders, she picks up the food here on Whidbey and over town, solicits donations, picks up the donations, sets up and cleans up,” Hagglund said.
Her menu on Thursday includes a nice salad, bread, peanut butter and jam, a dessert, sandwiches, side dish or main dish, and soup of course; after all it’s a soup kitchen.
“Jena is just the neatest person,” Hagglund added. “When I retired from work, Jean came to me and asked, ‘You wanna come play with me?’ What she meant was volunteer at the soup kitchen, and it’s been fun and gratifying ever since.”
Volunteers at the soup kitchen all work together, and it’s like a family, Matheny said.
“Our focus is on the people coming in to eat,” she said. “Some of our customers come in for social reasons; others need the food because they cannot afford a good meal otherwise. The meal is free to everyone.”
Before her tenure began at the soup kitchen, Matheny was for 10 years the director of Time Together, a program dedicated to assisting elderly folks who are afflicted with diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The role was one of helping participants with everyday things, but also ensuring they get out and have a bit of fun too. Every Friday, she’d take them dancing.
“We told them if you can’t dance just get up there and exercise your legs a bit,” said Matheny, with a smile. “They’d get up there and soon enough they’d be dancing. They just had to remember. It was a really rewarding experience.”
Matheny happens to be a pretty good dancer herself, a ballroom dancer to be exact. She and her identical twin sister, Joan Langstaff, boogie down every Monday at the senior center in Everett.
She’s also renowned as something of a card shark, in small circles at least. Matheny and the soup kitchen crew get together after the Thursday lunch is through and play “Hand in Foot” and her skill.
“Jean is an awesome cook, is a vibrant square dancer and a sharp Hands and Foot card player, so watch out if you attend her weekly card games,” said Gail Corell, daughter of Jean’s close friend Jim Rambler.
The longtime soup kitchen leader volunteers in other arenas around town as well.
Along with her long efforts at the soup kitchen, and Time Together before that, Matheny volunteers in other places around town as well. She likes to spend time gussying the place up, most recently working to beautify Generation Park on Saratoga Road.
Matheny likes things that look pretty. She designed the modest duplex in Langley she lives in. She painted the outside white with pink trim. Walking in you know it’s a feminine place, set in soft pastel colors and decorated with flowers. She looks out her window and points at the affordable housing she and her husband had built many years before.
“This world needs affordable shelter and food for everyone,” Matheny said. “I can’t help the world, but I do want to help those I can.”
She says in addition to serving the folks that come in to eat at the Soup Kitchen, they also send home food care packages for those in need.
“It’s sure fulfilling to see their appreciative faces when we give those out,” she said.
Her first husband Ron, the father of their five children, perished in a plane crash. Her second husband passed away from cancer.
“Life is not easy, as we all know, but I have the Lord on my side so I can handle it,” Matheny said.
She’s learned in life not to dwell on hardships, or mistakes either.
“We can all find things in our lives to be sad or disappointed about,” she said. “It’s what we chose to focus on that makes our lives easier or harder. If I know I have said something wrong or done something wrong I apologize and try to make it right, but then I don’t’ dwell on it.”
For example, she said someone told her a woman named Laurie thought she had been bossy.
“By the time I found out, Laurie had already moved away, so where ever you are Laurie, I am sorry,” she said. “That’s the best I can do now for Laurie, and search myself to see if there is truth in it.”
Matheny wakes up each day and finds a purpose for the day. She says she doesn’t want to dwell on the losses she suffered, and instead focuses her attention on positives.
“I take each day at a time, try to think of at least one person I can do something for, even if it’s a small thing,” Matheny said.
Pastor Bob Welch said there are several words that come to mind when he thinks about Matheny, and the first is “Tireless.”
“She seems to have a huge reservoir of energy when it comes to caring for people,” he said.
Another is “Faithful.” One can always count on her to pull her weight and do what she says she will do. Her quiet, behind-the-scenes work has resulted in many successful receptions in church, he said.
She’s also “compassionate” and “caring,” one who sees a need and fills it, and always has time to give someone a hug to remind them that she cares.
Jim Sims, a Soups On regular, says he would add the word “comfort” because Matheny causes those around her to be comfortable, welcomed and included.
“Jean just seems to have the right words at the right time. That causes me and others to feel at home,” Sims said.
WHAT OTHERS HAVE TO SAY
“Jean is a wonderfully cheerful and encouraging person, an outstanding cook and an excellent organizer of volunteers… who has consistently and unselfishly used her talents to bless others in our South Whidbey community for many years. She’s been a hospitality for over 10 years at the Island Community Church, leader of the ‘Soups On’ soup kitchen for over 10 years, volunteered at the Senior Center, and so much more. Jean brings honor and credit to the Lord in all she does — she is an angel.”
Bill McAfee, soup kitchen and
“What an incredible person. On each Monday she goes to town to get groceries for the soup kitchen… Fred Meyer and sometimes the food bank. She runs the kitchen on Thursday including cooking and running the front of the house. On Tuesday she comes in and runs the front of the house. She works 20 to 25 hours per week.
If it was not for her we would not have big dinners on Thanksgiving or Christmas —she does it all, collects the turkey and cooks them, then rounds up volunteers to do the rest of the work, including serving the dinners. Praise the Lord sister.”
Chef Dan Saul, soup kitchen volunteer and chef
“I have known Jean since 1965. Our kids went to school together, so we volunteered together. Jena is always hard working, caring, and tries to make people happy. The Island Church is one of her main interests, organizing trips and functions, the hospitality table and the soup kitchen. I have volunteered with her for seven years in the soup kitchen, and she always makes it a pleasure for the volunteers, and all who come in for the meal.”
Sally Berry, church and community
“I hold Jean in very high regard. She volunteers every day to help her people. She’s just a great lady, someone I really respect and admire her greatly.”
Joan Jones, soup kitchen volunteer
“Jean is a very caring and sincere person. She is always there for you. She is a dedicated volunteer for Whidbey Island. She spent many volunteer hours as a Time Together volunteer, many hours as a manager at Free Lunch at the Langley Church. She is an asset for Whidbey Island. I have known her for many years and she is a dear friend who I could call on at any time. I am happy to call her friend and she deserves this recognition.”
Jody Neely, community volunteer
“Jean is the epitome of helping others and giving back to her family, friends, neighbors and the community. Her years of dedication and commitment to the CMA/Whidbey Island Church for Thursday’s soup kitchen and the annual Thanksgiving dinner, with her twin sister Joan from Mukilteo, and her compassion and dedication to the Friday’s Time Together Group at the Bayview Senior Center just goes to show what an amazing and incredible lady she is.”
Gail Corell, daughter of Jean’s close friend Jim Rambler
“I met Jean in 2000 at a Langley Community Club Meeting, which she is a board member. She has helped guide the LCC in so many wonderful directions. She was part of the LCC team that made Generation Park happen. She was also on the team that brought back the ‘Soup’ Box Derby in 2002. She has always been an active member in the Langley Community. So glad to have her as my friend.”
Tucker Stevens, community volunteer
“Jean had volunteered at Time Together before I came here; she’s so supportive and caring. She’s always pleasant and kind. She would help the participants at Time Together to the bathroom, or to eat or on field trips, she would help in any way needed always with kindness, she’s all about helping. She’s a worker bee. She and Jim, her buddy, visit people in their homes. She always has a hello for everyone.”
Carol Edgar, Time Together program assistant
“My mom provided the foundation for compassion, acceptance, and courage that both of us take forward into our own autonomous beliefs. I’d say that’s a great legacy. She is someone I admire. And so do her grand kids, like the 11-year-old who wrote an entire history paper about her.”
Linda Porter, daughter
“Oh Jean is such a hard worker, but of course everyone knows that. She’s also so fun, and such a giggly girl. We volunteered together for the group at the senior center called Time Together. We had such fun; her sense of humor is a joy. We play cards together too. She serves coffee at church, and of course volunteers with the Soup Kitchen. You cannot ask for more of a hometown hero than Jean.”
Jane Theriault, of the fun band and Polynesian dancers
JEAN PEARL MATHENY’S BIOGRAPHY
BORN: 9-19-1932 Minneapolis, Minn.
EDUCATION: Pine City MN. High School
SPOUSES: Married Ronald Lee Porter in 1952. Ron passed away in 1980. Married second husband Jack Matheny in 1983. He passed away from cancer in 1987.
CHILDREN WITH RONALD PORTER: Ron, Linda, Leslie, Brad, Becky.
GRANDCHILDREN: Three, nine great grandchildren
YEARS ON WHIDBEY: 60
HOBBIES: Cake decorator, private pilot, gardening, ballroom dancing, square dancing, hand and foot card playing, decorating the soup kitchen, making jam to give away and beautifying Langley.
What beliefs are Most important to you? “Our God helps me through everything.”
Something you try hard to be good at? “Communication. I want to get my point across concisely, and without hurting anyone’s feelings.”
A pet peeve? “When people do not show others consideration, such as simple manners, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘may I have’ rather than ‘give me.’”
What inanimate object would you like to be? “A Rose so everyone could enjoy the scent.”
A question you would ask others? “How am I to work with? Not bossy I hope.”
Someone you would like to remember differently or forgive? “My sister who passed way. In her last year she was very crabby. … I need to forget this part of her life, and remember only the good times.”
Something not everyone knows about you? “I was a private pilot, earned my license in 1969. I gave rides to many people and they all made it safely back to the ground. We used to use Stan and Kathryn Wood’s runway at the platform that is now Saratoga Woods.”
What animal are you most like? “Dog, I like to cuddle.”
What do you wish you never found out? “When my children told me their antics while they were growing up.”
What do you wish people would understand about you? “I am human, I make mistakes, please tell me when I make one you experience.”