Milton-Freewater family's venture answers a call

A Milton-Freewater family hit by a personal tragedy works toward a positive turn for the community.

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With mom Mari Meza watching over her, two-year-old Galilea "Gali" Meza pauses for a moment from lending a helping hand with a window display, to peer from behind a cut-out heart and marvel at the falling snow and ice Wednesday afternoon as temperatures started to dip below freezing in Milton-Freewater. Gali hangs out with and helps at her mom's Main Street business "Heart, Soul and Mind" which provides training for life services to various groups and individuals. January 18, 2012

MILTON-FREEWATER -- She's not sure how this venture will turn out, Mari Meza said Wednesday, but she is sure she is supposed to be doing it.

Earlier this month, the Milton-Freewater woman and her family opened Heart, Soul & Mind, an enterprise that, so far, has defied categorization, said Meza, a native of the Walla Walla Valley. "I just call it a training center."

In the Main Street office, the Mezas will offer a variety of classes and ministries, including the kinds of trainings Meza developed in her position as a program director for the Blue Mountain chapter of the American Red Cross.

From education for the physical realm -- babysitting, fitness, CPR trainings -- to supporting the spiritual with Bible studies and teen outreach, the family hopes to care for the community that has cared so deeply for them.

It was Oct. 19, 2010, when fire broke out in their rural home on Locust Road. Before the last spark was extinguished, the Mezas had lost their home, their belongings and a daughter.

Malani, who would have celebrated her eighth birthday last month, was killed in the blaze. Her little girl, the family's next-to-youngest, was a deep sleeper who also suffered from asthma, Meza said. "That smoke took her right away, I'm sure."

Another daughter, Genesis, now 7, suffered burns on her hands and feet and was taken to Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland. Meza was also hospitalized at Providence St. Mary Medical Center.

The tragedy was widely reported and area residents responded with overwhelming compassion and outpouring of tangible support, Meza recalled through tears. "We will never pay back everything that people have done for us, but we want to try."

The event that changed her family's life will not be forgotten, she said. "I can still place myself in that hot fire."

To that end, Meza has forced herself to speak about the loss to groups, so that Malani's life -- and death -- will not be in vain.

Meza, 36, and husband, Efraim, 48, opened Heart, Soul & Mind "for the glory of God" with the last $2,500 in donations to their family, she added. "My husband and I are mission driven. We want to serve God. He was there 24-7, the only one who could comfort us."

Meza has trained more than 5,000 people through the Red Cross. And now that the national agency's restructuring has slimmed down the Walla Walla office and "skyrocketed" the cost of classes, she's aware many will not be able to access lifesaving and other traditional Red Cross offerings. "I knew it was coming. They were working people who couldn't afford the classes."

The area's economy doesn't help the situation, she noted -- some employers no longer can send employees in for the CPR training, for example.

Heart, Soul & Mind will be able to offer those type of classes at a family-friendly price, she said. Eventually she hopes to have the funds -- $700 to start -- to apply for nonprofit status.

"I know what it's like to be at the bare minimum," Mari said. "To run out of gas on the highway and trying to walk to work. I understand about families that have to make it work with kids and jobs."

Indeed, Meza takes her youngest child to work with her every day. Galilea, or "Gali," 2, was the baby Mari snatched out of the crib by the wood stove where the fire went out of control.

Also spared that day were sons Jacob, 10, and Christian, 16.

The business hosts "Malani's Closet," where people can buy donated clothing for 50 cents per piece. It's a fitting tribute to her daughter. Malani, her mom said, "loved to dress up and walk in style."

She's set to teach cooking classes and Efraim leads Bible studies at the storefront center, which also is a form of training, Meza said with a chuckle. "I call it training for life. Because Bible study absolutely is and CPR comes right after that."

Yet the greatest employee success story from Heart, Soul & Mind might just be her son Christian. Her oldest boy has gone through so much because of the family's devastating loss, she said.

"We were really sick at that time and I asked him to make a fire, like he's done forever, and I think he felt it was his fault."

At 15, Christian responded by leaving the family, "and was gone for quite some time."

He's back now, Meza said, and has planned the center's first teen outreach, a band jam this Friday beginning at 7:30 p.m.

Teens in Milton-Freewater often complain about not having a venue for their own music, so now they will -- in a supervised setting chock full of adults, she explained.

"It's a secular thing, but we have Bible verses up on the wall. It's our subtle way of planting the seed."

It's Christian's hope to have a teen event once a month, from music to poetry readings, his mother said. "It's a blessing for me to see how God is fully working."

The Mezas hope their new venture can be used for good for every single age. She could allow herself to be tortured by the vision of Malani in the fire, Meza said. "I can think 'My baby was fried.' I could go down the tubes with that thought." Her faith, however, has kept her steadfast. "When God is with us, who can be against us?"

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

If you go

Heart, Soul & Mind is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., at 612 N. Main St. in Milton-Freewater. Call 541-861-3139 for more information.

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