Field Notes

A Thanksgiving story: Matt Conwell's mission to help Union Gospel

A Thanksgiving story: Matt Conwell's mission to help Union Gospel

Let me introduce you to Matt Conwell.

I am thankful that he is out there and, I suspect, if you spend even a few minutes on the phone with him, you will feel the same way.

It’s late Thanksgiving night and Conwell, finally home after a long day of holiday celebrating with family and friends, is all to happy to talk about what he is thankful for.

“I am so grateful to be a part of a community that is willing to make a change and not just talk making a change,” he says over the phone.

Conwell is talking about the gaming community and the charity event they just did that brought in tens of thousands of pounds of food for the Union Gospel Mission.

“It’s such an important event for us,” he says. “On several levels. First and foremost, it’s about collecting food for those who need it. Second, and also important, is it gives people a chance to see the gaming community in a way that most people never have.”

Conwell, who started PDXLAN, an organization of gamers that has three charity events each year, says most people have a narrow, outdated view of who gamers are.

“We are lawyers, doctors, students, professionals,” he says. “When stories are done about gamers, it is often in the context of a bad event - usually a shooting - and the fact that the person responsible was into video games.”

Conwell says while that might make good shorthand for people in the news business to refer to who a suspect is, it is no longer accurate - let alone fair.

To back up that assertion, he cites his wife - a clinical psychologist in Portland.

“More and more research is being done that shows that if someone does not play video games, that tends to show more about who someone is than if they do play video games,” he says. “Part of that is that games are really everywhere now, not just on a console attached to a television.

“They are on our phones, on our desktops at work. Video games are just a part of life now.”

Conwell, who has a Master's degree in marketing, says gamers fall into a category that transcends simple categorizations - they cut across gender, education, profession, age, he says - and the events he organizes are meant to demonstrate that.

“We have hundreds of people who turn up at the events and it’s the perfect opportunity to show who we are and what we can do,” he says.

Five years ago, Conwell decided the event could - and should - be more than just about just video games.

“I went to Bible school before I knew what direction I wanted to take with my life and one thing that has always stuck with me is the fact that when I die and am standing before God and he asks if I did everything i could with the talents that he gave me, I want to make sure that I can say yes,” he says.

Conwell let people know that he wanted them to bring canned food to the event.

“When it was over,” he says, "we had collected 4,200 pounds of food. And as great as that was, all I could think was that we could do so much better.”

The second year, they collected 8,500 pounds. The third year 16,200 pounds. Last year, 22,000 pounds. This year?

“We collected 37,500 pounds of food,” he says. “A key to the growth has been that we’ve been asking people to do is hold their own small events, collect food and bring it.”

One group of 10 people arrived in Portland with 4,000 pounds of food.

The food all went to the Union Gospel Mission.

“They are such a good organization,” he says. “They are the only food kitchen I found that, if they have too much of one thing, look for another group to donate to. If they have a surplus of potatoes, they will find a group that needs potatoes.

“There so many people that need help and it is a number that is getting larger not smaller.”

The Mission, which served 130 turkeys Thursday, provides 575 meals at its facility as well as another 600 box meals that it delivers. And that’s every day (minus the turkeys).

“And still there are some 300 families that do not have food, that go hungry, every day,” he says.  “We all have a responsibility to help and this is the best way I can think to do that.”

In the 12 years that Conwell has been organizing PDXLAN, they have collected about 100,000 pounds of food for Union Gospel Mission and raised more than $100,000 for organizations including Smile Train, Child’s Play and the Red Cross.

“I am thankful to belong to a group of people that wants to help,” he says. “I am thankful to know that there are so many out there that want to give back.”

And I am thankful that there are people like Matt Conwell out there helping channel that energy.