'These children need all the help we can give them'

In July, American Legion Riders Chapter 442 Director Joseph Sullivan was trying to conduct a monthly ALR meeting when he started getting messages on his phone. Sullivan had his phone on silent and tried to ignore them until getting a phone call from his son, a U.S. Marine stationed in California – a call his fellow Legion Riders in Horsehead, N.Y., knew he had to take.

His son was calling because one of his friends had sent him a picture from a motorcycle accident two blocks from Sullivan’s house in Horsehead that had taken the life of two local residents. Sullivan assured his son he was OK and then started checking the messages. All were the same, checking to see if Sullivan was OK.

Sullivan and the rest of the Riders eventually found out that the victims of the accident were Matthew and Harolyn Matteson. The pair had two children together, a 5- and a 7-year-old, while Matthew had an 18-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.

Sullivan said Matthew and Harolyn had come to a few of 442’s smaller events and at the last one had brought their son, 5-year-old Lucas. Sullivan was handing out balsa wood airplanes to children and found Lucas staring at him.

“I had two left,” Sullivan said. “I looked at his father, and he said, ‘I told him he could have anything he wanted here, and he wanted one of those airplanes.’ So I gave him those last two airplanes.”

For nine years Chapter 442 has conducted a Benefit Dice Run to raise funds for various local charities but had never done so for a specific family. After reflecting, however, Sullivan said picking the Matteson children as recipients of this year’s August fundraiser was pretty easy, especially after seeing pictures of the children and parents.

“I looked at the daughter and the mother, and I looked at the son and the father, and it was like they were spitting images,” Sullivan said. “I just thought the boy’s never going to know his parents. And the daughter might have faint memories. I said, ‘I wonder if we ought to do this benefit for them?’”

Other people began messaging Sullivan asking the same question. During an emergency Riders meeting a few days later the decision was made to donate the funds raised to the Mattesons. Sullivan created a flyer and posted it on Facebook at 7:05 p.m. that night. By 7 a.m. the following morning it had been viewed and shared more than 16,000 times.

Members of Chapter 442 reached into their own pockets to help the children, as did Post 442’s American Legion Family, while area businesses, organizations and individuals stepped up to donate to the cause. And Sullivan said that probably “every other” motorcycle organization or club in the area also presented a check to the cause.

Despite rain, more than 138 motorcyclists took part in the dice run. Between that and raffling off more than 200 items, the event raised nearly $30,000 for the Matteson children. And a local quilters group that meets at the post made a quilt for each of the three children in a matter of days.

Pulling the benefit together for children they really didn’t know was an easy choice for Chapter 442’s Legion Riders. “It’s part of Americanism, and it’s part of Children & Youth,” Sullivan said. “It’s what we do. We take care of children in our community, and these children need all the help we can give them.”

But even prior to the benefit, Sullivan had helped one of the surviving children. He said he found out that the oldest daughter, Ashley, had never rode on the back of her father’s motorcycle, despite his asking her multiple times. On the day of the Matteson’s funeral, Sullivan approached Ashley with an offer.

“I have five daughters, and I have two daughters that have never ridden with me,” Sullivan said. “I know how much that would bother them … if something were to happen to me and they never rode with me.”

Sullivan offered to let Ashley ride on the back of his motorcycle with him from the funeral home to the church. “The day of the funeral she came up to me, gave me a great big hug, and she goes ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to ride,’” she said. “I’ve been riding my whole life, and I’ve never been more nervous. Her family came up to me, and I told them ‘the amount of trust of faith you put in me at this time to take (Ashley) on a motorcycle when they were killed on a motorcycle, it’s just unbelievable.'

“Her mother approached me with tears in her eyes and said ‘Joe, I’m a grief counselor, and that’s what I do for a living.' She said that with all of her training that she has ever had, she could never do for her daughter what I did that day. She said I made her daughter smile on the worst day of her life.”