Expanding your donor base will be difficult — in the beginning there was a core group of people who knew about my story and the reasons for starting the foundation, now the challenge is bringing that story to a mass audience and conveying the importance of the fundraising that we are doing.
Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.
How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?
In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew Wetherbee.
Matthew Wetherbee is the Founder and President of the MW Fund, a charitable organization whose mission is to provide scholarships to individuals who have suffered traumatic spinal cord injuries and need specialized SCI rehabilitation not covered by insurance.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I had a pretty traditional childhood growing up in Marblehead, Massachusetts with an intense love for sports — specifically basketball.
Can you please give us your favorite” Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson, which has turned into my daily mantra, is “Focus on the Positive.” In fact, these were the first words I was able to speak post-accident and surgery. A visitor had come to spend time with me, and was probably nervously filling the silence by complaining about something work related, and I said: “focus on the positive” to him. So many negative things happen daily so you really have to look at every situation and handle it in that moment.
How would your best friend describe you?
Hard working, incredibly detailed and funny when I need to be.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
Perseverance, a natural drive and the ability to stay focused.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?
I attended James Madison University where I studied Sports Management, and knew that I always wanted a career in sports. I accepted an internship at a Boston-based Sports Management company after graduating, which turned into a full-time job shortly after. This was an incredible learning experience for me as I was thrown into this fast-paced world of managing professional athletes, running large scale events and working with nationally recognized charitable organizations and causes.
And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?
On June 7, 2016, three days before my 29th birthday, I suffered a significant spinal cord injury (SCI) while playing basketball, a sport I loved and had played since middle school. After my injury, I spent two months at Massachusetts General Hospital, followed by three months at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital working on my recovery before I was able to go home. Although I remain paralyzed below my shoulders, I have made huge progress since my injury — which I credit to my four-times weekly therapy at a specialized rehabilitation facility that serves clients with SCI.
I decided to launch the MW Fund when I quickly realized how important it was for those living with SCI to have access to daily exercise and therapy. Once leaving a rehab hospital and being discharged from outpatient therapy, insurance often does not cover the cost of exercise facilities specializing in SCI (typically costing a minimum of 100 dollars per hour). This is difficult for most to afford given the extra costs associated with SCI, which is why the sole mission of the MW Fund is to award scholarships to deserving individuals in order to offset these financial burdens.
Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?
I have always considered myself a healthy person, someone who looked forward to working out daily and someone who ate very clean. When someone suffers a traumatic injury like this, there are an incredible amount of physical and mental changes that occur, most that you cannot control. Attending this specialized therapy was so incredibly important to me, it was something I looked forward to and my recovery became something that I felt I was finally in control of. Not only was it helping me become physically stronger and healthier, it was helping me mentally. I have experienced firsthand too many instances where individuals cannot attend this specialized therapy because of the cost, or had been cut off from other funding which resulted in the discontinuation of their recovery program. On average, 50–60% of clients are on some sort of financial assistance to attend. The need is high, and this triggered me to figure out a way to help.
What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?
I’ve been able to stick to same healthy lifestyle, principals and habits despite this massive life changing event. What I’ve had to adapt to is an entirely different communication skillset. Nothing is physical anymore; I have to use my voice to communicate everything.
How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.
Since the MW Fund’s inception, we have successfully awarded 154,000 dollars in scholarships to 15 deserving individuals, and an additional 22,000 dollars to SCI-related services! We recently hired an Executive Director in order to help grow and expand our organization as we prepare to launch new initiatives to help as many people living with SCI as we can.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are many people who could fit into this category, but one who stands out the most is my fiancé’s dad, Mike Kiely, who greatly assisted me with getting adjusted to new life after my injury. Mike and his wife were planning a permanent move to Virginia shortly after my injury happened. Instead of moving to Virginia, Mike uprooted his life to drive cross country to Boston and find an apartment to rent in the same building I was living in. Mike wanted to be there for me when I was released from the hospital in order to help us out — which ended up including him driving me to therapy four days a week (an hour to and an hour back) and stepped in as a personal care assistant if one of my PCAs was suddenly not available. Mike also traveled with me on my first flight post injury to the University of Louisville in order to get screened for the epidural stimulation research trial which I was subsequently accepted into and have been participating in for the past 2 1/2 years.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
Our new Executive Director worked in Public Relations for 11 years before taking on this role, and she had reached out to me about potentially partnering with a client of hers for a brand awareness campaign that would also raise attention for SCI-awareness. The idea was to have myself and my fiancé compete as a duo in the Boston Marathon, but because of the timing, we were unable to qualify. In a quick shift of plans, we decided to do it anyways and have my fiancé push me in a racing chair the entire 26.2 miles along the Boston Marathon route one week prior to the race. With plenty of planning, and plenty of training, we were able to execute this “unofficial run” that was sponsored by her client — which ended up getting us national attention and a 10,000 dollars donation!
Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?
Yes, unfortunately this is something that is all too common in people suffering from spine cord injury. I was lucky to have a great support system that has helped me overcome a lot of challenges since injury, however, my fiancé Kaitlyn is the one who has been by my side from the beginning and constantly helps me push through when these feelings start to come back. This, I think, is a feeling that I will never be completely over, but she is the one who always helps me keep moving forward. Another specific example is when my good friend and lawyer, Joe, told me he thinks that I can be one of the top young fundraisers in Massachusetts because of my drive and determination. This of course helped spur my interest in starting the MW Fund.
In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?
I have been lucky to have great people around me all that helped with many different things. The key is not being afraid to ask for advice or help. I have been able to use my network from my professional life as well as family and friends to help establish a successful foundation. It’s this network that has gotten me to where I am today with regards to my injury and resuming life afterwards.
Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?
After my spinal cord injury, I was continuously looking for new research opportunities that might help with my recovery. There had been some groundbreaking research going at the University of Louisville using epidural stimulation that I was very interested in participating in. Once accepted into the research program this meant that I’d have to move to Louisville, Kentucky for at least two years. This was a change for me because I had lived in or around Boston my whole life as an able-bodied person, but now being severely disabled it meant moving away from a lot of my family and support systems that I had in place living in Boston since the injury happened. There was a lot of planning that had to be done in order for my fiancé and I to uproot our lives and make the move.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Expanding your donor base will be difficult — in the beginning there was a core group of people who knew about my story and the reasons for starting the foundation, now the challenge is bringing that story to a mass audience and conveying the importance of the fundraising that we are doing.
2. It’s difficult to get your message across the same way you think of it in your head. Take your time when communicating what is important because messaging and storytelling is key.
3. Be prepared for a lot of paperwork — this is true not only for legal filings and taxes but also for grant applications.
4. Fundraising is hard! It’s difficult to ask for money in general, but to continue to ask the same people who aren’t receiving anything tangible in return can be challenging. This is why it’s so important to be compelling about your cause and to keep finding ways to share and tell your story — and listen to those who want to share their story.
5. Be Patient. We are a small organization with big goals, and it’s easy to feel defeated when there are so many people that you want to help but do not have the funds to do so. Setting realistic goals will help with your growth trajectory, so be patient and keep moving forward towards those goals.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I hope to inspire and make a difference in the lives of not only those living with spinal cord injuries, but also anyone I meet along the way and am able to share my story with. I hope the MW Fund can be an inspiring movement to raise awareness and funds and be a platform for those who haven’t been able to share their SCI story.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
Bill and Melinda Gates so we can pick their brain about a strategy to take the MW Fund to the next level!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find updates on our official website mwfund.org and my personal Instagram account @mwetherbee. You can also watch a video of our marathon footage here:
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!