A Servant's Heart

A Servant's Heart

Matt’s Ministry feeds souls with food, fellowship, books, and love

Words by Marianne Leek

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Matthew 25:35, New International Version).

No one ever tells you that teaching will break your heart. As beginning teachers, we frequently focus on the impact we can make on our students, naively unaware of the deeply profound ways that our students will impact and inspire us. But I believe teaching is similar to the Fibonacci sequence spiral of a pine cone or the center of a sunflower—each experience, interaction, and relationship dependent and built upon the previous, part of a rich and layered, broader human experience, forever part of the other’s story. 

In 2005, Matthew Butler became my student and not only changed my life but the lives of everyone who knew him. He was a young person of exceptional character, a positive leader, and highly intelligent, but he was also wicked funny and full of mischief. I got to know him his sophomore year when he was a student in my Honors English and Journalism classes. He was the kind of kid who would have ten tabs open on his computer: finishing a homework assignment for his next class, writing an article for the school newspaper, checking major league baseball scores, reading the morning news, and editing Wikipedia all at the same time. Unable to participate in high school sports because of his health, he became the hilarious and beloved voice of our high school’s baseball team. He was an equal opportunity jokester who was as comfortable chatting with teachers and pranking the principal, as he was hanging out with students his own age.  

I knew that Matt had been diagnosed with lupus during his freshman year of high school, but I did not understand the seriousness of his condition. Frequently missing school due to illness and traveling to the Duke University Medical Center for experimental treatment, he made the decision during his junior year to drop most of his classes, postponing his graduation. Matt loved to read, write, and learn, but more importantly, he had a heart for others. His senior year he invited me to his church because he had written and would be preaching that Sunday’s sermon. He spent many of his summers engaged in mission work in our community at the Hinton Center and in other parts of North Carolina through Carolina Cross Connection. Matt graduated from Hayesville High School in 2008 and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating in the spring of 2012 with a degree in history. Sadly, in October 2012, at the age of 23, Matt lost his battle with lupus.

In the summer of 2013, his mother, Maggie, an elementary teacher, recognized a need in our rural western North Carolina community. With approximately 30 percent of our county’s school-age children eligible for free or reduced lunch, she worried about them struggling with hunger and food insecurity during the summer months. Still processing the loss of her son and working through her own grief and healing, Matt’s Ministry, a small food pantry, was born and addressed this growing need by providing supplemental nutrition, basic necessities, and love to those struggling to make ends meet, particularly children and the elderly. With the help of her Ledford Chapel church family, the food pantry was started in their church’s fellowship hall. However, with generous financial support from her church, a Duke Divinity grant, and community donations, a permanent building was constructed across the street within two years. Matt’s Ministry has always and continues to operate debt free. 

Each week, at least fifteen regular volunteers work alongside those from local churches and organizations and serve close to 150 families in our Appalachian community. Along with  food from MANNA—the Feeding America food bank in Asheville—Walmart, and Dollar General, farm-raised meat, vegetables, and eggs are regularly donated by area farms such as Still Waters Landing, the John C. Campbell Folk School, and Master Gardeners, as well as by individuals. 

Matt’s Ministry is a beautiful example of a community taking care of its own, with those who once found themselves in need frequently coming back to volunteer. Maggie explained the full-circle nature of serving others: “I believe that when our clients come through on Saturday mornings that they feel welcomed and that we truly want to help them. We have several volunteers that started as clients, or friends, as MANNA likes to call them. We have a woman in her 80s who after she lost her husband started coming on Saturdays to volunteer. She has a sit-down job opening bags and greeting clients, along with passing out food. We have a gentleman in his 80s who helps on Saturdays breaking down boxes and unloading the truck on Thursdays. We have a couple in their early 30s who started as clients and saw one Saturday that we needed help and have been coming back each week to volunteer. Food is an easy way to connect with people. I know many of our friends/clients that come to the pantry for food are also coming for fellowship with others. We have evolved and changed over time to meet the needs that we see. I don’t think we could have dreamed or imagined at the beginning that we would grow into what we are doing now.”  

Part of this evolution occurred in 2014 when Matt’s Ministry partnered with Dolly Parton's Imagination Library as a way to provide equal access to books for children from birth through kindergarten. As an elementary teacher, Maggie has seen firsthand the impact early access to books and fostering a love of reading and learning can have on literacy. “I remember teaching kindergarten and having students that did not know how to hold a book, turn pages, or know any letters. Reading with children is the greatest gift we can give them. Reading aloud is crucial to learning early literacy skills and school success in the primary grades. Teachers can teach these skills in school, but children who have not been read to are frequently behind their peers who have had that early access to books and reading. Dolly started this program in Sevier County, Tennessee, because her father never learned to read, and she has stated that her book program is one of her biggest successes. Books for children can be a mirror for them to see themselves and a window to see the world.

“Matt always loved books and reading. When we heard about the Imagination Library, we knew that we wanted to partner and bring books to the children under 5 in Clay County. We started the program in March of 2014 in connection with Read Across America at the elementary school. We have mailed 39,566 books to area children through our affiliation with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. Providing books to children in my community brings me joy! I love that the program is universal access and that all children get free books. My hope is that the books that families receive each month provide opportunities for them to share an adventure and spark conversations with their children.”

Matt’s legacy continues because of the help and love of selfless volunteers, countless organizations, and financial support. It continues because of a community that believes that one life is truly connected to another. “I rarely go many weeks without someone telling me something about Matthew. For example, his fourth-grade teacher reached out to me on social media saying that Matthew was recently the topic of conversation with her family, as she remembered him calling out a classmate who was not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance. This past October was the tenth anniversary of Matt's passing. That week I got a call from someone I did not know who wanted to make a donation to Matt’s Ministry. She and her husband, who are around the same age as Matt would have been, donated $10,000 to the ministry! They did not know Matt but knew about our pantry.

 “God reveals himself to us and reminds us of his faithfulness often. Matthew had a servant's heart. He loved his summers working at the Hinton Center serving others. I know that he would be so proud of what we are doing in his memory. Losing a child is devastating but we are blessed with a community that loves and supports us in honoring his memory. This is a blessing.”