By Randy McNeely
Matt Peine is a big man with a big smile and a heart as wide as the Mississippi River. His wife Tonya is right there with him in heart size. Between them, and a caring church leader, Pastor Sharon Phillips, hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives have been touched in Muscatine and beyond.
What is it that has allowed these blessings to flow? The memory of a blond-haired, blue-eyed little girl with a sparkle in her eye and a spring in her step that left this world too soon.
It was Dec. 15, 1998 when Matt dropped 5-year old Jessica off at school. She was so eager to get into the building that she fell and scraped her knee.
“Do you want to go home?” Matt asked.
“No Dad, I’m going to school.”
And off she ran.
Matt watched his little girl go inside with no idea that it would be the last time he saw her alive.
Later that day when walking home with her siblings, Jessica ran out in front of a car and was struck. Matt and Tonya were called to the hospital, but when they arrived, it was too late.
Many people would be crushed by such a tragedy. For Matt and Tonya, the grief never goes away, and there is still a hole in their hearts. Yet, rather than continually focusing on that hole, they’ve turned their tragedy into a blessing for others. With some encouragement from Pastor Sharon, they determined not to let memory of their sweet little spark, Jessica, die.
That determination has resulted in multiple opportunities to help others in Jessica’s name.
The first came the very day Jessica passed away. While at the hospital Matt and Tonya were asked if they would consider donating Jessica’s organs. They both felt good about it and immediately said yes. Thus began a relationship with the Iowa Donor’s Network that is still going strong.
The second opportunity to honor Jessica came following a candlelight vigil on Christmas Eve, 1998, just days after Jessica’s funeral. Not wanting to return Jessica’s Christmas presents, which they’d purchased just days before Jessica’s passing, Matt and Tonya donated them to Pastor Sharon to use for “someone in need.”
Shortly after midnight that night, and within a few minutes of returning home from the vigil, Pastor Sharon got a call from a desperate mother. “We don’t have any presents for our kids. Is there anything you can do?” Pastor Sharon still gets choked up when she talks about how wonderful it was to be able to say, “Yes.”
A third opportunity to honor Jessica came just a few days later.
“The Lutheran services in town had shut down a clothing closet they were running, and they offered to let me take it,” Pastor Sharon said. “The thought struck me that I could run the closet as a way to honor Jessica’s memory. I spoke to Matt and Tonya about it, and they loved the idea. Jessica Faye’s Closet was opened and has been running since early 1999.”
What good has been accomplished in the ensuing years? Jessica Faye’s closet works on a no-cash basis. People donate all the things you would expect to find in a regular thrift store, but no fees are charged. If someone needs something, they just come in and take it, no questions asked.
Through their unique model, as one patron put it, “many, many families and individuals have had clothing that they couldn’t have gotten otherwise. Many children have had toys and games their parents had no way to buy. I’ve been coming here since Jessica Faye’s Closet opened. As a single mom this place saved me.”
The reach of Jessica’s Closet extends beyond Muscatine as well. For the past twelve years, they’ve donated a truckload of clothes to Native American Reservations. Additionally, in 2005, when Katrina struck, they sent a truckload of clothes to help people in need.
But how do they function? Surely there are some associated costs. The answer is fundraisers and donations.
The Joey Gase team at the Iowa Speedway in Newton placed Jessica’s picture on their racing car and ran it in Nascar races to raise awareness. Every year for the past 9 years, Matt and Tonya have worked with the Pearl City Riders to put on the Jessica Faye Memorial Ride and Music Festival both to raise awareness for the Iowa Donor’s Network and to raise funds for Jessica Faye’s Closet. The ride and the concerts are helpful, but donations are still greatly needed.
“We’ve outgrown the space we’re in,” Peine said.
“We really need a retail space that we could set up like a no-cost thrift store,” Pastor Sharon said.
We live in a time when light, love, unity, and peace are being eroded. How refreshing it is to know that there are still wonderful people out there, like the Peines and Pastor Phillips, doing marvelous things to give kindness and inspire hope.
If this story has resonated with you, and you’d like to help, please contact Pastor Sharon Phillips at 563-554-5430 or Maria Perales at 563-571-6413.
There are good people all over Muscatine County who give kindness. Maybe you know some of them and have a story to share. If so, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.
If you would like a copy of the book, you can find it here.