BEACON FALLS — The Pent Road Recreation Complex was buzzing Aug. 8 as roughly 300 people flooded the fields for some kickball for a fantastic cause.
Noon sharp marked the start of the third annual Susie Classic kickball tournament hosted by The Susie Foundation, a nonprofit based in Beacon Falls.
The Susie Foundation was founded by Beacon Falls native Ryan Matthews in honor of his mother, Susan (Ready) Matthews. Susan Matthews was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2009 and died in 2011 at the age of 57.
“I was her primary caretaker for the last 18 months of her life and during that time we had many conversations that really had no answers. With a terminal illness like ALS the question why comes up a lot — why me, why this disease, why is there so little anyone can do about it — and those conversations very often left me feeling empty, so this is how I fill that void,” Matthews said.
Matthews, along with friends and family, started The Susie Foundation in 2013. The foundation started small but has grown steadily. The foundation donates between $10,000 and $20,000 each year directly to homebound patients and for ALS research.
“Everyone that works with us has a job of their own so there is no overhead, salaries, or anything like that. Every penny that we raise goes to people who need it most, which doesn’t happen in most nonprofits,” Matthews said.
The kickball tournament, which is the foundation’s largest fundraiser, has been a staple of The Susie Foundation since the beginning. In its first year, the tournament drew 14 teams. The next year that total grew by one. This year, 18 teams took the field.
“Every team came back from last year. We have been growing by people that came on a team and break off to start their own team,” Matthews said.
Naugatuck resident Matt Tavares, who has played for two years, was a member of one of those expansion teams this year.
“I heard about the tournament through work. Ion Bank is one of the donators,” Tavares said. “I know Ryan, and I want to support him because he is such a great guy.”
Beacon Falls resident Kyle Burke, who also in his second year of participation, heard about the cause through friends, Greg and Nicole Barksdale.
“I came back because it’s a good time and a good cause, it’s really a no-brainer,” Burke said.
The Susie Classic reached a milestone in its third year, raising more than $10,000 for the first time. The event raised $10,557 this year, the foundation announced on its Facebook page.
Beacon Falls First Selectman Chris Bielik, who spoke during a ceremony before play started, made it clear how proud he is of this tournament.
“It is a story that needs to be told. ALS is something that has been around since the 1940s, yet little is known about it. The fact that we have something so big here in such a small town is wonderful. We have all these people willing to help for a meaningful cause and it really shows the heart of a town that we have volunteers and helpfulness in spades. I want this to be a yearly staple here in Beacon Falls,” Beilik said.
All of the volunteers that work the event are family, friends, or friends of friends, and that is part of what makes this kickball tournament so special.
“It doesn’t feel like a lot of fundraisers. Some places you go there and it can be stiff and boring. Here, and I’m not sure if it’s the kickball that makes people feel loose and harken back to when they were younger, but it is an atmosphere that I can see my mom being comfortable in. I mean she ran the Sugar Shack when I was a kid,” Matthews said.
The Susie Foundation is at the beginning of its life and helps those in their most vulnerable moments. People like guest speaker Harris Wies.
Wies, who took the stage in a wheelchair given to him by an ALS group, spoke about what The Susie Foundation has meant to him.
“I was stuck in my house until I met Ryan. He got me a ramp so that I could get in an out. It’s hard to find that kind of help,” Wies said.
Matthews presented Wies with a Golden kickball at the end of the opening ceremony. The ever modest Matthews doesn’t take any credit for the remarkable work he has done.
“I like to think of my mom as the founder of this organization and I am just the caretaker,” he said.