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Books honor a life that never really began

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Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Jim Matthes and his wife Ramona sort through books that were collected for Elizabeth’s Book Drive, a campaign launched by their son and daughter-in-law after their first child, Elizabeth Luke Matthes, was stillborn July, 25 2012. Photo taken on Friday, July 19, 2013.
Sunday, July 21, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

Marianne Matthes prepared the nursery for her daughter, filling it with old books she could not part with.

This was going to be a special place where a mother passed the books she loved — and the wonder in them — to her daughter.

But when her first child, Elizabeth Luke Matthes, was stillborn on July 25, 2012, the world stopped for Matthes and her husband, Lance, who met as 12-year-olds while growing up in Ontario, Ohio, about 160 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

“She was full-term, and we were both perfectly healthy,” said Matthes, 32, of Wylie, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. “It was textbook normal.”

On the morning doctors couldn't find her daughter's heartbeat, “it was like my whole life stopped, changed in an instant,” she said. “I will miss her always.”

From that despair came inspiration.

The couple launched a nonprofit charity in their daughter's name and spent the past year collecting new and used children's books that they plan to deliver to children in need in three states, including Pennsylvania, from Thursday through Saturday.

They turned to “the generosity of strangers” to help make a difference in the lives of other children.

“It's amazing how many kids in this world don't have books,” Matthes said.

The almost 10,000 books they collected through Elizabeth's Book Drive include donations from Dolly Parton's Dollywood Foundation, author Dean Koontz and many school-age children who heard their story and wanted to help, Matthes said.

“Even our mail lady has left books on our doorstep,” said Lance Matthes, 32.

Agencies on the receiving end of the effort said it comes at a time of reduced funding and cutbacks in book giveaway programs.

“We believe it's important that children have books in their homes,” said Alice Nunes, CEO of the Butler County Children's Center HeadStart program, which will receive books from the drive. “When you're low-income ... usually books are the last thing you buy.”

The agency distributes books three times a year to 700 children at nine sites. It eliminated book giveaways from its budget and relies on donated books to carry on a program that officials said can make a difference in a child's life.

“It's just amazing what that does,” Nunes said. “The kids love to pick out their own books.”

James and Ramona Matthes, Lance Matthes' parents, collected more than 3,000 books from their home in Sarver.

“It's been real good. ... Of course, my basement will be relieved to see them go,” said Jim Matthes before he left to collect two more book donations.

Response to the drive expanded the distribution plans. Books will be distributed in Pittsburgh, Dallas, Columbus and Mansfield, Ohio, at three hospitals, two food pantries, an agency that supplies an orphanage in Zambia, an emergency shelter for abused children and a shelter for abused women and children.

“This charity has really helped with our healing process and gives us something to look forward to,” Marianne Matthes said. “Some days this is the only thing that keeps me going.”

Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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