...to enrich the lives of families with special needs children
through customized therapeutic experiences
Tuesday, August 16th, 2005
He was always first -- in line, in competition, at school.
Matthew Potter's mom, Janet, likes to believe her son went first to heaven so he could open the gates for thousands killed Sept. 11, 2001.
Her 7-year-old boy died the day before on a ride at the York Fair. Nearly four years later, Janet and her husband, Butch Potter, are able to talk publicly about the day that changed their lives, and a benefit in Matthew's honor aimed at helping others.
From a loveseat inside their York Township home, the couple detailed events of that afternoon. Matthew sat in his second-grade class at Leaders Heights Elementary School gazing at a gray sky.
Forecasters had called for rain, and he worried that he and his younger brother and sister, Ryan and Natalie, wouldn't make the fair.
The kids had grown and entered pumpkins in a contest.
But rain didn't fall. So they stuck to the plan: Pumpkins, food and leave.
"It was such a simple day," Janet said, touching a gold charm dangling from a thin chain around her neck. "We went straight to the pumpkins. They all got honorable mention."
Quick stop at one ride: They stopped at the petting zoo, and then at the "Flitzer", a Reithoffer Shows, Inc. roller coaster that is about 30 feet tall at its peak.
"There was this ride. It was on the way to the food vendors," Janet said.
"There was no one in line. We let the kids go, thinking it would be a quick stop before we got something to eat," Butch added.
Janet stood with a friend, Jack Lehr, on one side of the ride. Butch waited near the exit for the kids who'd piled into one of the cars. Several minutes later, the ride's operator yelled to the kids.
"He was screaming, 'Hold on, hold on'," Janet said. "It seemed like the car was going faster and faster. Then it just stopped."
The operator continued screaming as Janet, Jack and Butch ran toward the children. Butch yanked on the car, attempting to move it and the children out of the way of another car.
"I was afraid they would get bumped from behind," he said.
Janet and Jack plucked Ryan and Natalie from the ride.
"Matthew just collapsed backward on the seat," Janet said. "Right at that point I knew he was critically injured."
The ride's operator was still screaming. Janet yelled for him to be quiet, and for help. Butch scooped Matthew into his arms and ran toward the first aid tent. Jack and Janet were close behind with Ryan and Natalie.
Mother rode in the ambulance: Janet, an emergency-department-trained registered nurse, rode in an ambulance with Matthew to a hospital; Butch stayed behind with the kids. The family reunited at York Hospital, where Matthew died shortly afterward from internal injuries.
"Our world changed," Janet said. "Every single thing in our lives changed."
York County prosecutors determined Matthew's death resulted from negligence, but determined that wasn't enough to file criminal charges against the ride's owners. Janet and Butch have filed suit against Reithoffer; the case is pending.
Friends and family rallied in support, eventually planting a garden behind the Potter's house that since has become a place to feel close to Matthew.
Jack launched a fund-raiser, now in its fourth year, in Matthew's name that would benefit Leg Up Farm, a proposed therapy center for special-need kids.
"I just believed this was a good way to remember and honor him," Jack said about the Matthew Allen Potter Memorial Golf Tournament. "We wanted to turn our loss into something beneficial to others."
Find meaning in death: The Potters relish memories of the time they had with their son, a blue-eyed boy who'd memorized every state capital in kindergarten.
Janet again touches the gold charm at her neck. It bears Matthew's thumbprint. It helps her through each day. The tears come less often, but they still come.
When she doesn't see Matthew first in line for the school bus. When he isn't beside her in the car giving her directions, preventing her from getting lost while she runs errands.
But the Potters have found meaning in his death, in part by celebrating his life.
Butch said he shined; that Matthew had a personality that drew people to him. Each year, as America revisits the national tragedy of Sept. 11, the Potters think of their oldest son, getting to heaven first, taking his place as a divine greeter.
"Matthew went first to open the gates," Janet said. "He was there for all those people."
By KATHY STEVENS, The York Dispatch
Tuesday, August 16th, 2005
It's no more than a field, 18 acres of land just south of Mount Wolf.
But Lou Castriota has plans for that parcel. He has designed a facility that would benefit special needs kids, offering the physical, psychological and social help they need under one roof.
Plans for Leg Up Farm have been in the works for several years, but building the center is a matter of money -- about $10 million. The nonprofit so far has raised about $700,000 from its two-person office on North George Street.
And next month, the Matthew Allen Potter Memorial Golf Tournament holds its fourth annual event benefiting Leg Up. Matthew was 7 when he died Sept. 10, 2001, from injuries he sustained on a ride at the York Fair.
Although the tournament, organized by Jack Lehr, has brought more than $100,000 to Leg Up's coffers, more cash is needed before crews can break ground. Castriota has worked with state lawmakers for years in hope of landing a $4.56 million in capital redevelopment assistance funds, which are administered by the Office of the Budget to pay for regional economic, cultural, civic and historical improvement projects.
Tough competition: To get the cash, projects must demonstrate an ability to raise matching funds. Castriota has done that, but competition for the money is tough because of the number of requests for economic development enterprises such as baseball stadiums, and visitor and convention centers.
Castriota began the nonprofit in 1997 when he realized the difficulty in shuttling his daughter, Brooke, from their New Freedom home to numerous places for various therapies. Brooke, one of Castriota's four children, has mitochondrial disease, which is similar to cerebral palsy. Castriota surveyed parents and industry professionals, whose advice solidified his idea to house numerous therapies under one roof.
The 110,000 square-foot facility would offer physical, massage, speech and therapeutic horseback riding, among other things. It would serve residents of York County and surrounding areas.
"We need the state to release the capital funds," Castriota said. "It is the next key piece, the thing we really need to secure before we can break ground."
By KATHY STEVENS, The York Dispatch