A high-school dropout whose life was a mess, Nicole Matthews knew she was in trouble. But she didn't do anything about it until she found out she was pregnant — and asked for help at Kent Youth and Family Services, a nonprofit supported by The Seattle Times' Fund for the Needy.

A high-school dropout whose life was a mess of depression, drinking, drugs, dead-end jobs and domestic violence, Nicole Matthews knew she was in trouble.

It got so bad she largely gave up on herself.

“I did feel hopeless,” Matthews recalls. “I didn’t feel my life was going to get any better. It was going to be this revolving door of pain and misery and fear.”

But something surprising happened when she went to the emergency room after her boyfriend pushed her into a wall, knocking her unconscious: She found out she was pregnant.

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Even more surprising, Matthews, then 21, decided to reach out for help.

She called Kent Youth and Family Services (KYFS), one of 12 agencies supported by The Seattle Times’ annual Fund For The Needy.

Matthews left her boyfriend, rejecting his demands that she abort the pregnancy, and, with public assistance and her father’s help, moved into her own apartment.

As she went to weekly sessions with a KYFS counselor and began talking about things she hadn’t talked about to anyone before, she began to heal.

“I basically stopped thinking about me, I started thinking about what I needed to do for this child,” Matthews recalls. ” ‘I can’t bring him here into the world that I’m living in. I can’t let happen to this child what happened to me.’ …

“I think the first big breakthrough was realizing I wasn’t a bad person. The things that happened weren’t my fault. It was OK to cry and OK to be angry.”

Matthews calls her son Nicholas, now 9, “my angel” because, she says, he saved her life by giving her the motivation to change.

She credits the counselors at Kent Youth and Family Services with providing her the tools to become a healthy, sober mother; helping her get two years of support from public-health nurses; enrolling Nicholas in Early Head Start; referring him for help elsewhere when he showed signs of developmental delays; and, for a time, counseling him.

Founded in 1970 by Brooks and Mary Loop as a volunteer-run nonprofit after the death of their drug-using son, Keith, KYFS has grown into a $3.7 million organization with a staff of 100.

Four hundred children and youth received mental-health counseling there last year, along with many of their parents and other family members. Many of the youths are also receiving help for drug and alcohol dependency.

KYFS provided preschool education to 600 children and after-school programs to 800 older children, and housed 21 young mothers and pregnant women who had been homeless.

Nicholas, a fourth-grader, has become “a bright, funny, nice young man,” Matthews says. If he or his sister Eva, 4, needs outside help when they reach their teens, their mother knows where to find it.

Now 32, she has completed her GED and is on track to graduate from Highline Community College next year with an associate degree and a paralegal associate of applied sciences degree. In her work-study job at Highline, she works in a women’s life-skills classroom and helps women use computers, write résumés and meet other challenges.

With two children of her own who benefited from Head Start, Matthews served this past year as a “parent ambassador” for the Washington State Association of Head Start and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program.

When the Legislature was considering cuts to a child-care program, she told the House Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee how the program allowed her to move from welfare to college and work.

On a recent visit to KYFS offices in downtown Kent, Matthews was reunited with Lorena King Palmer, the second of two counselors she worked with over a two-year period. Palmer’s mouth fell open and then she gave Matthews a high-five as her former client described how her life has changed.

“Could you picture yourself doing that?” Palmer asked, when Matthews recalled testifying before TV cameras in a legislative hearing.

“I look sometimes in the mirror and say, ‘You’re not like you used to be,’ ” Matthews replied.

When Matthews was in counseling, she showed determination and a willingness to follow through on her decisions, Palmer recalled.

That doesn’t mean less-motivated clients can’t succeed.

“What we really look for are ways to connect with people where they’re at and build a relationship from it,” Palmer says. “Relationship is such a huge part of any kind of meaningful change. …

“People come with amazing, amazing skills that they don’t know they have. Clients are the ones that do the work. We try to find ways to support them in that and find ways that it’s possible.”

Matthews wishes her father had known about Kent Youth and Family Services when she was a struggling teenager. But she’s grateful he has supported her recovery and has becoming a doting grandfather to two children “who love him to death.”

Matthews hopes eventually to earn a bachelor’s degree and a law degree so she can work in law or government, but she expects to be looking for a full-time job next year.

“I’m following my passion,” she says, “but also realizing reality. I’m doing all these wonderful things, but I need to support my family and keep a roof over our heads.”

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com