Ryan Matthews speaking at a Susie Foundation event; with his late mother, Susan, and father, Neil Matthews ’83 (CAHNR); and with wife, Liz, at the Hartford Marathon.
Ryan Matthews ’09 (CLAS), ’16 MPA loved his first job out of UConn rebuilding homes for Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans. But when he came home to Beacon Falls, Connecticut, that Christmas, his life turned upside down. He discovered that his mother, Susan, had dramatically deteriorated after being diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).
So he quit his job and began caring for her full time. And then he watched in despair as the disease slowly robbed her of all control of her body over the next 18 months.
“Watching my mom die from ALS was an experience that shaped every fiber of who I am as a person,” he says. “I graduated from UConn a little bright-eyed, a little full of myself, and ready to take on the world. ALS gave me this depth of perspective that almost made my peers seem unfamiliar.”
A few months later, he started The Susie Foundation, a nonprofit that supports families caring for relatives with ALS. Now 10 years later, the foundation has raised more than $1 million and helped hundreds of families. The organization gives grants of up to $3,000 a year to about 100 families in New England to help offset medical expenses not covered by health insurance. It also supports New England’s only summer camp designed to meet the unique and pressing needs of young people helping to care for a parent or family member diagnosed with ALS.
“There are tens of thousands of people diagnosed with ALS every year, but you still feel incredibly isolated when it hits your family,” Matthews says. “Part of what I wanted to do with The Susie Foundation is to make it feel less isolating and at least have one person helping to support the family who speaks the language of ALS.”
Matthews runs the Foundation on nights and weekends when he’s not at his full-time job as vice president of programs for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Connecticut or caring for his toddler. He discovered his passion for community service at UConn, while majoring in history and political science and engaging in community outreach, intramural sports, Leadership Legacy Experience, and Alternative Spring Break. “All the things I got involved with on campus made me a more well-rounded person and better prepared to handle ALS.”
By Grace Merritt