Kay Matthews’ world was turned upside down nearly 10 years ago when she lost her daughter in childbirth. The Houston native said she felt alone in her grief as she struggled to find people to listen to her and believe what she was experiencing.
“I delivered my daughter stillborn, and no one was making the correlation between maternal mental health and stillbirth. It was just like, you lose the baby; you go see a grief counselor; and that’s where your story ends,” she said.
When Matthews realized she was going to have to take her healing process into her own hands, she began journaling to help process her feelings. She ultimately went on to develop a curriculum to help others recover from their experiences and prioritize their mental health.
“Inspire” was the word she focused on in her own journaling process. She would start small by inspiring herself to simply get out of bed each day and eventually began to put her life back together one day at a time.
From there, she launched the INSPIRE method—an acronym for Involve others, Nourishment/exercise, Spirituality/prayer, Patience, Identify and initiate change, Rest/relaxation, and Each day is a new day.
“We understand about giving ourselves grace and that everything may not have worked out today, but what about tomorrow? Because tomorrow we get another day to inspire ourselves,” she said.
Today Matthews trains others on this method and has support groups across the country through her nonprofit, the Shades of Blue Project. The name of the organization reflects the spectrum of feelings a mother may experience on her journey.
“When we think about mental health, typically we think about dark clouds and darkness, but there’s many shades of blue,” Matthews said. “There’s many ways in which we feel, and so the shades of blue just gives you that permission that we sometimes need to feel how you need to feel.”
In addition to offering the journal-based program Matthews created and other free maternal mental health resources such as online support groups, the Shades of Blue Project serves between 60-200 mothers and families across 25 states each week by mailing out free diapers, wipes and other household and baby items.
Matthews said this mailout process began during the pandemic when other services went exclusively virtual and these social support needs were not being met.
Families can also pick up baby supplies and shop the organization’s new boutique at 3303 FM 1960 W., Ste. 130, Houston. The boutique opened Sept. 28 offering clothing and shoes for women, men and children. Clients can browse the boutique and select the items they want themselves, and all items donated to the organization must be new, Matthews said.
“Thinking from a dignity perspective, when we think about mental health, how does it feel to just be given [used items] … the way we work and the people that we see, we’re restoring and we’re healing, so everything is new for a reason,” she said. “The healing process most oftentimes hasn’t even begun, but it may begin when they go into that boutique … and they get to go home with a little bit more peace of mind than they may have walked in with.”
Other services offered at this site include a space for counseling sessions, a resource room with computer access, a training space for support group leaders and other organizations, and a room called the “happy place,” which provides a relaxing environment for clients to decompress after sessions.
Additionally, the Texas Workforce Commission offers resume assistance, and Avenue 360 offers free health care services on a regular basis. Future plans include space for family photo sessions and community-style dinners, Matthews said.
“It’s really about having that one spot that you can come to so you don’t have to find multiple rides to different places. You can come here to get everything that you need,” she said.
Matthews said many mothers in the Houston area already face enough barriers, such as finding reliable transportation to access essential services.
Additionally, women may deal with fears when it comes to health care, so she designed the on-site wellness clinic with comfort in mind—exam rooms are labeled “safe spaces” to remind mothers the health care providers serving them care about their well-being.
Other organizations may require birth certificates and other documentation to get assistance, but such paperwork is not required at Shades of Blue.
“People are having to give up too much and getting too little in return,” Matthews said. “And so they end up doing other things just to make ends meet—you know, stealing, or the things you need to do by any means necessary to get what you need. And I don’t think moms should have to do the unnecessary just to have diapers and wipes or clothing for themselves and their spouse.”
Matthews noted that Black women lead the way when it comes to maternal mortality and morbidity rates statewide and across the nation. She said she hopes elected officials realize the significant role mental health plays in their efforts to reduce those rates.
For instance, a pregnant woman may struggle if she is asked to stop taking medications for a mental condition due to potential side effects. Another may become addicted to prescription pain medication following a Cesarean delivery, she said.
“Somebody else out there is experiencing this; they’re just not talking about it … and so I just made that commitment to myself, and I built the organization little by little,” she said.
As a newer organization just under 10 years old, Matthews it can be difficult to develop partnerships with governmental entities, and there are restrictions attached to some of the funding available for organizations like hers.
While the Shades of Blue Project is primarily funded by out-of-state grants and community contributions, she said she hopes to continue to build partnerships in her own community to reach more mothers in need.
“Some moms come to us who just don’t know what’s going to be next. They’re just truly struggling [until] they realize that they can actually get help for the first time, and they can also call that number again and get help again,” she said. “They tell us this was easy, and they thought it was going to be hard.”