Linda Wiles Thornton has been such a figure to countless people, young and old, for decades mothering pregnant women in crisis and providing a home for those abandoned with no place left to turn. Since founding Thiessen Roadhouse Ministries in 1984, she has shown undying faith, total selflessness, and sincere compassion to those in need in her community.
Visiting Thiessen Roadhouse in the wooded residential hills near Milwaukie is a little like visiting a Zen garden. On the day of my visit, wind chimes, maple trees, and bamboo plants ushered me to the front door, and a comfortable and peaceful vibe was prevalent, even through the drizzly January afternoon.
When did you realize, or decide, that you were going to devote yourself entirely to helping those in need?
I think that came when I was a single mother raising three children. Each one of my three children had friends, and as they grew up those friends followed them, and we all kind of went through that era where… “I wish you were my mother—can I come live with you?” This house started as a safe house, a place where children could come and be heard. It has evolved from 1974 up to now. Through my faith, the calling of my life was to make this all more structured. I just put my whole heart into raising my children and everybody else’s. Now I house mothers in crisis and victims of domestic violence. They find me—they just come from word of mouth, from hospitals, or Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS). I help mothers give their little babies life, and help them to be productive in the community.
How was Thiessen Roadhouse Ministries founded?
We have always been known to be the place to “get a meal or crash.” It is a meeting place, a gathering place for people to come and feel that beautiful spirit of love. We made it a “lighthouse,” and mothers come into this home and feel safe. The funding has been mostly me working to support it.
In 1976, I met a wonderful person who taught me the sign painting trade because he knew I was an artist. We worked side-by-side and started my own business, and that’s how I could afford to fund this place. Later, I met another person who was a custom pin striper. We teamed up, and I learned that trade. He and I worked side-by-side for seven years, really supporting this and everyone here. I’m a sharing person—if someone needed a radiator, I’d buy them a radiator. If they needed new tires, groceries, or whatever, I helped them. And now I’ve been here doing that for 35 years.
Where does your compassion for these young mothers come from? What’s your personal connection with the women you help?
I grew up in fourteen foster homes myself—dysfunctional parents, all kinds of abuse. At nineteen, I fell in love. I got pregnant with my first-born son, and the father abandoned me. So, I know first-hand what every one of these mothers is experiencing when they come in. When I birthed my first son I always said that if I ever had the opportunity to help another mother along the way I would do it. And that, mind you, was 50 years ago and there weren’t any homes like Thiessen Roadhouse. I’ve always had that caring heart and compassion to set myself aside and to help somebody else—put them first.
Was there any support available to you when you were a mother in crisis? Where did you turn?
There was a Salvation Army. That was the only place. Recently my son said, “Mom, tell me the story about me being a Salvation Army baby.” It’s a beautiful story, and very personal. People want to know why I do what I do, and that’s very human. It just escalated to taking care of the mothers and their babies, and funding-wise, I had to become a nonprofit because I couldn’t afford it—and still can’t! (laughs)
Can you describe the Roadhouse facilities—how many rooms are available to those in need, how long do guests stay, are there any fees charged to the guests?
This is a 1200-square-foot house, maybe a little bit larger. There are three bedrooms, the conference room, and the TV/ library room. Our annual budget is enough to house three mothers for a year, or seven residents. That would include domestic violence/emergency shelter. When these mothers come in they have no funding. I don’t turn anyone down. I go and take out of my funding. I’ll feed a resident and a baby and buy diapers before I even feed myself. I’m not a martyr, that’s just what I do.
Who assists the occupants of the roadhouse on a daily basis?
Well, I live here, and I assist them. I’m a 24/7 girl. I’m the founder and executive director, but the softer name is just the House Mama. I accommodate their needs, and they’ll text me if I’m out and about.
They’re like my daughters. I fall in love with each one of them. I’m also a labor doula, which is an assistant to a midwife. Doula is a Greek word, meaning mothers helping mothers, and women helping women. Most of them don’t have a mate and most of them don’t have biological family. They have nobody. So I become anything they want me to be to them, and we bond after I tell them my story. Then they don’t think I’m just this little grandma sitting here, spinning my wheels.
Are there group discussions or activities that are carried out?
Monday night is in-house counseling, one hour. Tuesday night is domestic violence, anger management, and drug and alcohol classes. Friday nights are bible study, and Sundays are church—either they come with us or go to a church of their choice, because we welcome all faiths here.
You mentioned your experience as a sign painter and pin striper. What role does art play in therapeutic activity?
Art therapy is a beautiful tool. You can use it with the mothers to learn their case histories, where they’ve been as little kids, even traumas from birth and why that person is the way they are. Art plays a big part in my counseling.
How do you deal with a difficult situation where a mother in crisis needs help, but they’re not open to it in a way that’s constructive for the house?
I switch gears from compassion and love to discipline, and then probably cry later (laughs). We’re human. We just want the best for these women and their babies. My daughter would say, “Mother, you can’t fix everybody,” and I’ve learned that’s true through experience. But there’s good in everybody, so that’s what I look for. If a person is angry/bitter, you can work through that and soften the hardest of hearts by just loving that person unconditionally. I couldn’t do this without my faith.
To favor acceptance over judgment—is that a major factor of your mission?
There’s no judgment whatsoever. It just works with the mothers. They’ve never been trusted, never been loved. There is faith here, not religion. We tell them that we love them, accept them, and forgive them. We don’t put this big heavy trip on people.
Can you talk a bit more about financial support for the Roadhouse? How do you cope with the tough economy?
A lot of support from the community, and a lot of prayer. We have private donors who commit to providing support. Like I say, something just happens. We tried a little second-hand storefront on 82nd, but that closed. Then, another door opened and I walked through. And so here’s this beautiful antique mall, called Oregon Antique Mall on 7th Street in Oregon City. Our part is called Mercantile 2, and we have items on consignment, including antiques and vintage wedding dresses. By selling our wares, the Mercantile is a really big plus to help fund the roadhouse. The mall has over 75 vendors, and they support us. It’s just flourishing. I’m excited about that because it’s keeping the door open right now. If it wasn’t for the Mercantile, I don’t know where I’d be right now.
How did you come across the idea to become a nonprofit? Are there other ways the Roadhouse receives funding?
My daughter is an international auctioneer, so she does a lot of nonprofits. She’s done our auction for 9 years. We’re event planning right now. In fact, soon we’re heading for the beach with the community leaders. We’re mapping out May 19th to be our ladies luncheon, then our motorcycle rally, and then the Gospel Music Jam. We also do a big annual rummage sale with Sellwood Baptist Church. Then our live auction—December 1st this year—will be at Gallery 903. All those events bring in funding.
So tell me a little bit more about your early days. You were into racing motorcycles?
When I was very, very young, my dad was a Portland policeman and he took me to school on his Harley. People were pretty shy around him—motorcycles were pretty loud in those days. So, I grew up around motorcycles and both my sons were motocross and flat track racers. I’ve always loved motorcycles, and trail rides.
I tried a little bit of racing in the 125 boys class and hit a few hay bales. I joined a group called the “Rummy Bunch,” and we did desert racing in Milliken Valley and Bend. There were seven of us. Then I had a terrible accident. I missed a caution flag and hit a rock and broke my neck. I’m a miracle baby here, so that ended my racing. In the ministry, three years ago we started the ‘Miracle Riders’—which we are because our babies are the miracles. I don’t ride by myself anymore because I’ll be 71 in February, but I ride with a couple other people.
How do you define success here?
Our success is birthing a baby. It’s wonderful to see the beautiful gift of life. To see these mothers graduate and become productive in our community is also a blessing. If I can help just one—I did it, I succeeded.