Richmond Hill UMC's new playground honors Marine's life, faith, service

11/14/2013

By Kara Witherow

Just as they were throughout his life, during Capt. Matt Freeman’s last days, his thoughts were of others.

Stationed in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, Freeman asked his mother, Lisa, to send school supplies so he could give them to local children.

“His last words to me were, ‘Mom the people are so nice and the kids are so cute, but they’d rather have paper and pens than food and water. Can you get school supplies over here?

“Those were his last thoughts to me,” Lisa Freeman said. “He was trying to change lives of children over there.”

Freeman, a third generation Marine pilot and second generation U.S. Naval Academy graduate, was killed on Aug. 7, 2009, in Kapisa Province, Afghanistan during a firefight with Taliban fighters.

He had a heart for children, and reached out to the kids in Afghanistan and in his home community of Richmond Hill.

Active at Richmond Hill United Methodist Church throughout his childhood, teen and college years, Freeman was involved in the church’s scouting ministry, its children’s and youth ministries, Sunday school, and volunteered in the nursery.

“Matthew grew up at Richmond Hill UMC,” Lisa said. “There was no place – other than his home – that was more dear to him than Richmond Hill UMC. It was the church that helped raise him.”

In honor of Freeman and as a tribute to his love of children and desire to serve others, the church recently dedicated Matt’s Backyard, a new park-like recreation area that gives the church’s and community’s kids a fun and safe place to play.

“He had a heart for children and did a lot for them,” said Janine Blakeborough, Richmond Hill UMC’s director of children’s ministries. “It was a perfect way to honor him.”

Families, friends, the congregation and community rallied behind the project, donating $33,000 to the effort in two months. What was once a rarely used field has now been transformed into a place where families and the entire church congregation can play and fellowship.

The church’s after-school ministry also benefits, Blakeborough said. Nearly 80 children attend JAM (Jesus and Me) each Wednesday, and before Matt’s Backyard was completed, they didn’t have an outdoor play space.

“We didn’t really have a safe place for them to run around and play,” she said. “Now we have a really nice structure with three sets of monkey bars, climbing equipment and six swings, plus a big open play area. It’s been great and has really helped our program because we now have somewhere for the volunteers to take the kids and let them get the wiggles out before they go to chapel time.”

Blakeborough estimates that nearly one-third of JAM attendees don’t have a church home or attend church on a regular basis. For many, their time at Richmond Hill UMC is the only experience they have with church and the only time they hear about Jesus and His love.

Freeman’s faith was deeply important to him, Lisa says, as was helping others and sharing Christ’s love.

“We’ve sent more than 10,000 pounds of school supplies to Afghanistan,” she said. “Now we’re focusing on the kids here and I think that’s just as important, that these young kids can now spread the word of the Lord. Children today need this foundation now more than ever.”

Her son touched many lives, she said, and his memory and outreach continues today.

“I can’t think of a better way of honoring Matthew and honoring us than to be able to drive up and see those children playing there.”