Linda Meyer is home in the San Lorenzo Valley.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Coast Life

Unsung Santa Cruz: How helping people in the San Lorenzo Valley has also brought her ‘home’

Linda Meyer could’ve easily looked elsewhere after her marriage broke up or after her 19-year-old son was tragically killed. But the Valley Churches United leader has discovered the support she has given the valley has been returned in kind.

She could have left the San Lorenzo Valley. Many, in her shoes, would have.

She was not a native of the area. She had lived in Reno, San Diego, the East Bay. She first came to the valley in 1989 because her husband’s family had a place in Ben Lomond. Then, she and her family moved to the area full time in 2004. But that marriage ended, and then the ex-husband died.

Then, five years after that — to the very day, it turned out — she lost one of her three children. Taylor was only 19 when he died in a gun accident.

The valley was full of ghosts for Linda Meyer. No one would have blamed her if she had moved far away to start again.

But she stayed.

And now, many from Felton to Boulder Creek couldn’t imagine life in the valley without her. Meyer is the operations manager at Valley Churches United, the nonprofit founded after the punishing 1982 floods to serve as the backbone of support throughout the San Lorenzo Valley for older people, low-income people and anyone struggling to survive. For those who depend on VCU, Meyer is the embodiment of the organization’s mission: give, help, build, connect, give some more.

“She’s one of the most helpful people I have ever met,” said valley resident Kevin Foster, who this year joined the VCU board of directors. “She’ll go out of her way to help others any way she can. I’ll drive by and I’ll see her car there at Valley Churches, even after hours, and I know she’s just working to help others.”

Boulder Creek resident Jeannie Hobbs said that Meyer is at the heart of the valley’s social scene as well, in an effort to always stay connected. “I keep seeing her at different things throughout the week,” Hobbs said. “People kind of have get-togethers at different places to celebrate someone’s wedding or a memorial service, and she’s always at those. And she’s always relentlessly supportive.”

Meyer, 65, first encountered Valley Churches as a client, someone in need. She was a single mom with three kids, and VCU helped her keep her children fed.

Linda Meyer organizing goods at Valley Churches United.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The only source of giving back was to give some time, so I started volunteering.

“The only source of giving back was to give some time,” she said, “so I started volunteering.”

Her goal was solely to help others. She wanted to shore up some solid references to make her more marketable in the workforce. After a year as a VCU volunteer (she was collecting a wage through a state/county program), she was ready to go out and find a full-time job.

Only Valley Churches didn’t want to lose her. The nonprofit had only one full-time staffer at the time. The board was so impressed with Meyer’s work, it decided to double its paid staff by offering her a job.

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“I get kind of teary thinking about it,” she said. “This is an organization that, for the first 30 years, only had one paid employee. And, all of a sudden, they wanted to keep me bad enough that they created a position for me.”

Meyer’s experience as someone once on the other side of the table at VCU’s food pantry gives her a sense of compassion, even camaraderie, for those in need. Lynn Robinson, VCU’s executive director (and a former mayor of Santa Cruz), called Meyer the nonprofit’s “Energizer bunny,” who, on top of running the food distribution, also creates the various programs that engage the community. “A lot of energy goes into the work she does here, and it’s amazing,” said Robinson.

Linda Meyer puts in many hours at Valley Churches United.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The traumas of 2020 have also put additional stresses on Valley Churches United’s ability to fulfill its mission. First, the number of people who were coming to VCU for relief expanded dramatically, first with the COVID-19 shutdown, then with the ruinous CZU Complex fire.

“We really saw a shift in our clients in terms of who was coming in, and also who wasn’t coming,” said Robinson. “(Some people) were saying, ‘Man, I usually come and give you guys stuff,’ and now they don’t want to ask for help, but we always find a way to help them.”

On top of the increase in the clientele to serve, VCU suddenly could not accept community volunteers who wanted to help because of pandemic protocols. That meant that VCU staff, now numbering three, had to pick up the slack created by the absence of volunteers. In that context, Meyer “just rises to the occasion,” said Robinson.

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Those who know Meyer best say she is the kind of person who can often be the glue to a community, not only a doer but a connector. Close friend Donna Geddes said, “When she meets someone new, she listens and she can repeat their stories.

“She has clients who she knows their phone number and addresses and how many kids they have. I mean, it’s crazy.”

Geddes said that Meyer’s heart cannot be measured by her role at VCU alone. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her,” she said. “I went through addiction and she was always there for me. She would sit by me when I was going through depression. She just knows when people are going through a tough time, and she’s always there to lend an ear or a ride or whatever.”

Jim Keegan (center) is now living via the heart of Linda Meyer's son Taylor.
(Via Linda Meyer)

There is at least one person who knows intimately the capacity of Meyer’s generosity, but who knows next to nothing about Valley Churches United or the San Lorenzo Valley. His name is Jim Keegan, a 73-year-old real estate broker from Santa Rosa, 130 miles north of Meyer’s Ben Lomond home.

Keegan was the beneficiary of the central tragedy of Meyer’s life. A heart condition had brought him to the brink of heart failure many times and he was in the last hours of maintaining his spot on top of a donor list for heart transplants when Meyer’s son Taylor died on the day after New Year’s Day in 2015. In a matter of hours, Keegan received a transplant of Taylor’s heart. He’s alive today because Linda Meyer made the decision to donate her son’s organs.

“If you’ve met her,” said Keegan by phone from his home in Santa Rosa, “you know she’s a wonderfully kind and sweet person. And she’s given me the greatest gift of all. She’s given me life.”

Linda Meyer found Valley Churches United when she was in need.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Keegan and his family have maintained a relationship with Meyer and her family. He sends her flowers on Taylor’s birthday. Last Valentine’s Day, he recorded his own — Taylor’s — heartbeat and set the recording into a card for Linda. They have each visited with each other, and Linda has put a stethoscope on Keegan’s chest to hear the heart of the child she lost.

When I told Linda Meyer I had spoken to Jim Keegan, she began to cry. She dismissed the idea that donating her son’s organs was an act of generosity on her part. “It was a purely selfish move on my part,” she said. “I just couldn’t let my son’s heart die.”

Taylor and Linda Meyer.
(Via Linda Meyer)

After Taylor’s death, she could have left the valley. She said that some in her family kept asking why she didn’t, going back even to her ex-husband’s death. The answer came at Taylor’s memorial service at Felton Community Hall and Felton Bible Church.

“There had to be more than 500 people there,” she said with an undiminished sense of wonder almost seven years later. “And I looked out at everybody and I said, ‘My family keeps asking me why are we here. Well, this is why we’re here.’ It was unbelievable. I was in a daze. I had just never seen anything like it. This community just enveloped me in their arms, and loved my whole family.”