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Hidden Gems: Meet Valarie Matthews of Catherine’s Family & Youth Services

Today we’d like to introduce you to Valarie Matthews. Them and their team share their story with us below:

Born and raised in Park Heights (Baltimore, MD), watching our grandmother Catherine Matthews, work tirelessly for over 30 years working with homeless and battered women with children in Baltimore shelters, and human service agencies.

She was a gem to all that came in contact with her, “Catherine’s Door was always open” as she hosted regular Sunday dinner for anyone that was hungry not just family. Her couch and shoulder were always ready to lean on or sleep.

It was kind of inevitable I would find myself, along with my sister and Co-Founder, Shannon Morgan doing similar work as our grandmother. Serving the same community that helped raise and shape us into who we are.

My mother, also a giver and servant to helping others, raised all 4 of my siblings with the help of our grandmother, in Baltimore City during the times when our community was truly CommUNITY. Everyone looked out for each other’s children, we could play outside until the street lights came on and someone’s parent could check you, everyone knew each other and your grandparents/parents— you could even walk to the corner store for a chicken box and half & half for $6 without your family wondering if you would make it back safely.

After having the opportunity to leave Baltimore and attend college at the Illustrious University of MD Eastern Shore for Biology, I realized that wasn’t my calling, leadership, and serving was my passion.

After our grandmother passing and Post college we took a ride around our old neighborhood, we saw the negative changes happening right in the community we were raised in— between the blight, trash, violence, homicides, drug and gang activity, permanent school, and grocery store closings, food desert- we answered the call to action. I spent a few years working in Baltimore City and County Schools in multiple capacities and still didn’t feel like I was reaching those that needed it most— my own neighborhood.

After a few years of listening, after doing our research canvassing the neighbors, in March 2015 we established Catherine’s Family and Youth Services Inc., (aka CFYS) a 501 c3 nonprofit organization based in Park Heights that serves moderately low to no income, homeless families, disadvantaged youth, older adults and the LGBTQ community. Our mission is to improve the quality of life and family for all residents in northwest Baltimore City and surrounding areas by providing the tools necessary to educate and empower them.

We started out in 2015 serving 5 families out of our own pockets to serving over 2000 individuals this past holiday season. When the pandemic hit in 2020, we shut our doors to the youth and created a food pantry to serve those in most need and affected by Covid-19.

We offer free summer and after-school programs to youth ages 5-16, a free food pantry and diaper/baby essentials hub that is open weekly to the community, and annual back to school, Thanksgiving, and Christmas outreach events that serve hundreds of families each year.

In addition, we also assist families with referrals for employment, utility assistance, counseling/PRP services, food, and housing. CFYS strives to help anyone in need, “Catherine’s Door is always open”

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall, and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
One thing I love about Baltimore is that our city embeds grit, tenacity, and perseverance in us all— we must be born with it. But, all the things we went through in our lives up until the moment we started this organization- prepared us for this work.

Although it’s not what I envisioned for myself, I thought I wanted to be a nurse then a teacher- not a servant of my community or as some recognize us as “community leaders”- I am just here on assignment. God has a funny way of showing us he has other plans.

In 2016, we got our first large grant (which required someone to be on the ground full time), and I left my full-time position as Program/ Dormitory Director to serve my community full time. I made a sacrifice because I heard God say he got me and has ever since that day. Everything I tried up until that point didn’t work. This did.

Well, if it doesn’t at least we tried instead of never knowing how much our grandmother’s legacy continues to touch lives each and every day!! The struggles and challenges outweigh all the great things and impact our organization has made over the last 7 years. I wouldn’t lie and tell you it was easy. Ha!

What business owner or executive director will tell you that?

It’s what you make it and how you overcome those struggles- make lemonade from lemons, right? That’s what it’s all about. There are general struggles that most nonprofits always have- lack of funding, lack of support/visibility, need space, not enough staff, etc., but I’m grateful for my sister and co-founder, our Chief Financial Officer, and our board of directors that work to make sure we keep going and keep the lights on!

Thankfully, we are smart black girls who rock and can do anything- because we are still here rocking this thing out! We are in this for the long haul, our grandmother’s legacy keeps us going, she is our reason.

We’ve been impressed with Catherine’s Family & Youth Services Inc, but for folks who might not be as familiar, what can you share with them about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
Catherine’s Family and Youth Services Inc., (aka CFYS) is a 501 c3 nonprofit organization based in Park Heights that serves moderately low to no income, homeless families, disadvantaged youth, older adults, and the LGBTQ community.

Our mission is to improve the quality of life and family for all residents in northwest Baltimore City and surrounding areas by providing the tools necessary to educate and empower. Our organization was founded in 2015 by 2 sisters, Shannon Morgan and Valarie Matthews, in honor of our late grandmother Catherine Matthews.

Everything we offer is free. We are a one-stop-shop with a wrap-around approach located right in Park Heights, no questions asked, we are just here to help. We have created a safe space not only for youth but for families to come for support- we value that!

You can find us on Twitter and IG @CFYS_Inc and on Facebook @ Catherine’s Family and Youth Services Inc. Visit Our website: www.catherinesfamilyandyouthservices.org to support, donate, volunteer, or partner with us.

What were you like growing up?
Ha- well if you ask my family they would say I was a “Tasmanian Devil”, do you remember that character? I was the youngest baby girl, spoiled to the core but always sweet as pie.

I was a huge Barbie lover & but rough around the edge—. I played outside a lot with the boys, rode bikes, and even played football. Weirdly, In elementary and some of the middle school, I was teased because of how light-skinned I was and because of my light-colored eyes.

But I always loved helping people, whether I was gardening with my older neighbors, picking up groceries for my grandmother, etc.

We relocated to Baltimore county for high school so interested in everything, I wanted to be the best I could be, in high school my trade was nursing.

I was Flag Girl in the marching band, ran indoor and outdoor track and field – my race was the 4×4 and 50 Meter dash, worked 2 jobs a senior year and served as Vice President of my class planning committee, and had over 3,000 community service hours by the time I graduated high school.

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