Dying halfway house operator fears dream of helping others will pass with her

04/19/2012 12:00 AM

06/04/2012 4:09 PM

Chickens pecked in the front yard. Singly and in pairs, women walked up the driveway, then back, killing time before a 12-step study group.

Through the lace curtains on the living room windows, Paula Meadows snuggled into a nest of blankets on the couch and watched the comings and goings of the halfway house for women fighting addiction that she and her late husband, Ken, established outside Galt in 1989.

She wore a nightgown, and she was hooked up to oxygen. When she talked, her words frequently rasped into a wheeze, then a fit of coughing that doubled her over in pain.

This was Ken and Paula Meadows' dream, this 14-acre compound on the edge of Highway 99 that they named Meadows Depot. It's home, not only for their extended family, but also for up to two dozen hard-luck women who want to recover from addiction and live with their children while doing so.

Some have been court-ordered here in lieu of jail time. Others have been referred by churches, and still others have come on their own.

Now 70, Meadows is dying of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the result of decades of smoking. And she worries that her lifelong dream of helping others is dying with her.

"There's too many women out there who need help, and they're not going to get it," she said. "There aren't enough homes for women with children. I pray that when I'm gone, this keeps going."

It started because she wanted kids – lots of kids. She and Ken, a truck driver, had five of their own, but they wanted more. Over 25 years, beginning in the mid-1960s, they were foster parents to 300 children in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. They adopted two more and served as guardians for several others.

The couple quickly figured out that when parents have drug and alcohol problems, their kids often become the collateral damage, paying the price for their elders' addictions.

"It hurts your heart to see it go on," Meadows said.

Helping addicted mothers could help prevent children from entering the foster system, the couple decided. They quickly found their niche: Many mothers are reluctant to enter residential recovery programs unless their kids come with them, but few residential programs include children. They wanted to accommodate both.

With no formal training – Paula Meadows didn't even graduate from high school, she said – they invested their retirement savings as down payment on the property on Highway 99.

"I wanted a home, not an institution," Meadows said. "What qualifies me to run this? Being a human being. These women need another chance. Somebody needs to help them. I give them a safe place, so they can help themselves."

She has run the halfway house on her own since 2005, when her husband died of throat cancer.

"My impression is, the work she does is really good," said Dianne Trotter, care ministry director of Galt's Horizon Community Church, which donates gift bags of essentials for Meadows Depot residents twice a year. "She gets the gals back on track. There's a sense of family there. I love that about it."

These days, 18 women and six young children live in the four residential cottages at Meadows Depot, attending 12-step meetings on site and going to recovery sessions at churches in nearby Lodi and Galt.

The residents stay six months or a year – or for that matter, as long as they want: Addiction didn't sink its teeth into them over 30 days' time, Meadows tells them, and they won't emerge into a new way of life quickly, either.

They call her Mom.

"Mom turned me around," said April Massengill, 52. "It's her unconditional love and encouragement. Other programs just program you all day. It was literally do or die for me when I got here."

That was in 2002, when a series of arrests in West Sacramento for public drunkenness and homelessness led her here. She sobered up, and over time, she earned her substance abuse counseling certificate from Delta College.

Now, she's a volunteer house mother, living in one of the cottages alongside more recent arrivals, such as Joanie Myers, 45, who came from Yuba City at the beginning of 2012 as an alternative to jail time on drug and burglary charges, and Mikee Kawelmacher, 44, who worked in construction in Woodland before a conviction for driving under the influence landed her here.

"Mom Meadows rescued us," Myers said. "She saved our lives."

Meadows Depot is a homespun, grass-roots operation, a nonprofit that's long on heart and short on sophistication. Its state charity registration expired more than a half-dozen years ago, and the corresponding lack of documentation of finances and services indicates there's no sustained fundraising program, no formal organization, no strategic planning.

"No nothing," said Meadows' daughter, Paula Fuller, 51. "There are no employees, either."

The place runs on Paula Meadows' good will and compulsion to serve others, funded by her small pension and monthly Social Security check as well as rent payments that residents make out of their General Assistance checks.

A living trust leaves the property and halfway house operation to Meadows' children, Fuller said. But the bills are steep: Meadows refinanced after her husband died, her daughter said, and the mortgage just increased.

The family intends to keep their parents' dream alive – but good intentions alone won't pay the bills, which come to at least $4,000 a month to cover the mortgage and utilities.

"None of us has the funds," said Fuller, a former medical assistant who lives in Vallejo and is herself on Social Security disability. "Financially, I can't help. We all have families of our own."

On good spring days when she feels up to it, Meadows takes her oxygen canister onto the main house's porch and sits on a bench in the sun. On bad days, she stays on the couch. Sometimes, former residents drop by to thank her.

The legacy she'll leave in the world is clear to her.

"It's mainly the kids," she said, and she began coughing again.

"There's not enough time to do everything to help."


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