MUHS reunion becomes fund drive for classmate paralyzed in ski crash

NEW HAVEN — The 10th reunion of the Middlebury Union High School class of 2005 this Saturday will be all about a classmate who unfortunately can’t be there.
The class has decided to make its reunion a fundraiser for Matt Leonard, their friend and classmate who became paralyzed from the chest down following a Feb. 27 skiing accident at Lake Tahoe’s Alpine Meadows resort.
Class of ’05 members who attend the July 18 reunion at Twitchell Hill Farm in New Haven will be charged a $10 cover. It is an event that will include a performance by the band Madaila (which features three MUHS grads), oven-fired pizza from MUHS grad Colin Pratt’s mobile ONE Hearth operation, and pony rides for kids.
It was class of ’05 member Joseph Coish who got the idea for turning the reunion into an event to benefit Leonard. Sofia Clark — another ’05 class member and Leonard’s former girlfriend — agreed to take the organizational reins and to host it at the horse farm that she runs with her mom, Sue Perna, who was a longtime teacher at MUHS.
Clark of course first pitched the idea to members of the Leonard clan.
“Marion (Leonard, Matt’s mom) and Emily (Matt’s sister) were ecstatic, and Matt agreed,” Clark said. “Everybody really wanted to do something to show their support. He’s really been an inspiration through this whole thing.”
Matt Leonard was well-liked and very active during his time at MUHS, and went on to attend Middlebury College. He played soccer all four years at MUHS and captained the tennis team.
“He’s such a natural athlete,” Emily Leonard said during a phone conversation this week on her way back East from the San Francisco area, where she had spent time visiting her brother. “Even as a kid, he never stopped moving.”
And one of his favorite activities had been skiing, which he was doing during that fateful day of Feb. 27. Emily explained the terrain at Alpine Meadows was icy that day. Matt hit a patch of ice, accelerated, lost his balance and collided with the concrete base of a lift pylon. There are no regulations in California requiring ski resorts to cushion their lift pylons.
Matt sustained a broken neck and a spinal cord injury. He also broke seven ribs and his sternum. After enjoying an active life, he was suddenly confined to a wheelchair.
“The pain has been one of the hardest parts,” Emily said of what her brother has had to deal with in the aftermath of the accident.
Needless to say, Matt has needed a boost — both physically and emotionally — since sustaining his injuries. Family and friends have taken turns staying with him to provide a helping hand and moral support. Slowly but surely, Matt is adjusting to the loss of the use of his legs. He recently acquired a car with manual controls, allowing him to get around.
But friends and family are trying to provide him with other items to allow him to maximize mobility and return to an active lifestyle. The wish list for Matt includes a hand cycle, a functional electrical stimulation bike that uses electrical impulses to activate leg muscles, and a standing frame that would help Matt with blood circulation, digestion and bone density.
Matt’s supporters have established a “crowdrise” website to take in donations for Matt. As the Addison Independent went to press on Wednesday, donations were at $27,145. The site is at www.crowdrise.com/Shizazaraz/fundraiser/emilyleonard1.
Insurance has covered some of Matt’s medical expenses, but many necessities aren’t covered — such as any equipment needed for bathing, like a shower chair.
Matt Leonard will be unable to attend the July 18 reunion and is still busy dealing with his new challenges. But he recently posted an entry on his blog to update his friends and family on how he is doing.
“Despite what you may have seen and heard, things haven’t been a whole lot of fun here,” he writes. “The days have been filled with pain, fake smiles and adjustments. Everything is harder than it was before. Everything. I don’t know if that’s hard to hear from me or if it’s refreshing, but it’s the truth. Yes, I’ve lost the back and neck braces and am out of the hospital. I no longer puke each morning or faint from low blood pressure when I sit up. People love to say ‘it gets better’ and yes, if puking and fainting are your baseline then sure, it gets better.”
But it’s clear that Matt is not dwelling in the past.
“I used to say there’s no such thing as a bad day of skiing, but I think after this I’m willing to concede that I’ve now had one bad day of skiing,” he writes. “Would I go back and do anything differently? Of course I would. But that’s not how this works and so to me it’s pretty simple. There’s only one way to go. Forward.
“I’ve said that word, almost subconsciously, as I’ve struggled to get out of bed in the morning,” he continues. “I’ve said it after three hours of therapy when there are two more to go. And I’ve said it at night when I know I’ll dream that I’m walking, only to wake up and start all over again. Luckily for me, I haven’t had to say it alone very often. Friends and family have come to visit every single weekend since getting hurt.
“I’m continually reminded that although it feels like forever, it really hasn’t been long that I’ve been hurt,” he adds. “I don’t know enough about the future, near or distant, to make any profound statements or inspirational conclusions yet. I just know that I plan on being the same happy person as I was back on the morning of February 27 and the only way to do that is to keep going. Forward.”
Fortunately, Matt has a supportive employer that will welcome him back next month, Emily Leonard said. Her brother is very grateful to those who have helped him in his time of need. His supporters of course include his parents, John and Marion Leonard, who live in Cornwall. Marion Leonard was a longtime educator at Mary Hogan Elementary School.
The Leonard family wants to lobby for increased skier safety measures in California’s resorts to prevent others from being badly hurt. But that’s easier said than done, according to Emily.
“California laws are such that they are close to impossible to change,” she said. “The lift tickets (in California) state there is no liability for anything, including negligence.”
For now, Matt’s supporters will focus on making the July 18 event at 1004 Twitchell Hill Road as successful as possible. An MUHS reunion Facebook page has been created at www.facebook.com/groups/815199031879674.
Clark credited Fire & Ice Restaurant and Nino’s Restaurant, among others, for donating food and/or supplies for the reunion. While Matt won’t be there in person, organizers said he will be in spirit.
“The hardest thing about this is he’s so far away,” Clark said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
CORNWALL NATIVE MATT Leonard, pictured here with his extended family, was paralyzed from the chest down in a skiing accident in February.
Courtesy photo

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