Lawrence advocate leaves impression on the town he loved and beyond

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As couples often do, Kris Matthews and Matt Enyart assigned each other a nickname. Kris called Matt “Speedy Mac” and he called her “50/50” because Matt joked that Kris could keep up with him about half the time.

“Before he got sick, he always did everything fast, had tons of energy,” Matthews said of her late husband. “He was a workaholic. There’s no doubt about that. But even walking out of our building, he would walk faster than I would, and he would talk fast, and he loved to socialize.”


The effects of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, slowed down Matt and ultimately ended his life during the summer, but his contributions will be felt in Lawrence and beyond for many years to come, say his friends, colleagues and family members.

Matthew “Matt” James Enyart died July 13 at age 49.

Contributed Matt Enyart receives a kiss from his wife, Kris Matthews, on their wedding day in 2020.

Matt arrived in Lawrence as a toddler. A year later his brother, Jon, was born. The pair made several moves outside Lawrence during their childhood. They always had each other, and Jon looked up to Matt.

“I knew what he stood for. He was my hero all along. I knew he would protect me and he always did,” Jon said.

The brothers returned to Lawrence in their early teens, and they loved living here. Matt graduated from Lawrence High School in 1992 and Jon in 1995. Jon said their bond strengthened as they entered adulthood — especially after Matt became a father in his early 20s — and they leaned on each other for advice and a sounding board.

Jon, now a veterinarian living in San Diego, will remember Matt as someone with a dark sense of humor who was committed to righting wrongs. Whenever they were together — on a trip to the grocery store, on a hike, or spending time on Rhode Island Street — Matt would stop and talk to people.

“There was not a stranger to him,” Jon said of his best friend. “He loved his community so much.”

Their dad, Steve Enyart, recalled how he and his sons worked with special populations and participated in softball at Woody Park through Unified Sports — a Special Olympics program for people of all abilities.

“I’m proud to say that both of them carried that on, and in fact, as college students, they both started working for Cottonwood,” Steve said. “Matthew stayed on with Cottonwood, where his career blossomed, and he expanded on that.”

Contributed Matt, Steve and Jon Enyart

Matt earned a master’s degree in special education at the University of Kansas. At the time of his death, he was pursuing a doctorate in special education at KU, said Jennifer A. Kurth, chair and associate professor in the Department of Special Education.

“In consideration of his outstanding contributions to the field and the community, we were honored to present Matt and his family with the 2024 Distinguished Alumni Award, of which he was certainly very deserving,” Kurth said in an email.

Matt created several organizations committed “to creating an inclusive and socially just community,” Kurth said, referring to Rainbow Kids & Families, TASK (Training and Advocacy Supports of Kansas LLC) and KIPHIC (Kansas Institute for Positive, Healthy, and Inclusive Communities).

Matt and his family helped launch the nonprofit organization Rainbow Kids & Families in 2018 to advocate and support LGBTQIA+ students in Lawrence elementary schools. Matt also served on its board.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Kris Matthews and Matt Enyart sport their Rainbow Kids & Families T-shirts in this framed portrait held by Kris in October 2023.

He focused on quality-of-life advocacy and consultant work via TASK and on a larger scale with research and training through KIPHIC, where he served as executive director when he died. The nonprofit organization promotes research and evidence-based practices such as “positive behavior interventions and supports, which contribute to Kansans being successful across their lifespan, in home, community, work, and school settings,” according to KIPHIC’s website.

In addition to Cottonwood Inc, Matt previously worked at The Arc of Douglas County and served on the board of SILCK (Statewide Independent Living Council of Kansas) — a governor’s appointment.

Don Haider-Markel met Matt through a network of dads and serves on the board of Rainbow Kids & Families. Matt and his children were very welcoming and accommodating to Haider-Markel’s child who has special needs, and that endeared Haider-Markel to Matt and his family.

“He was just fun,” Haider-Markel said. “Always wanting to go do things. He was up for whatever, whenever. You didn’t have to plan things two weeks at a time. You could just drop him a line on Saturday afternoon and he was up for whatever.”

Even as Matt experienced a health decline, he still made time for a two-hour meeting with Haider-Markel’s family to help transition their son to post-high school life as a non-neurotypical adult. Matt helped draft and navigate a roadmap for their future, including the long waiting lists for services that people with disabilities face.

“He’s done that for probably hundreds of people,” Haider-Markel said. “But for us, it really was meaningful going forward to have the confidence that we’re on the right path.”

Haider-Markel and friends honor Matt with a version of Texas Hold ‘Em called “Matt’s Hand” during their weekly poker game.

“We actually just played last night. He won all or half the pot through three games,” Haider-Markel said with a laugh. “We just miss the guy. He was just a great human being.”

Contributed Matt Enyart enjoys the newly accessible view from Wells Overlook in 2022.

Mikayla Lawless, interim executive director for KIPHIC, met Matt in 2015 while working on a mental health project for Positive Behavior Supports (PBS) in community organizations and correctional facilities in Johnson and Shawnee counties.

“Matt Enyart just took my world to a whole new level,” Lawless said.

Matt inspired Lawless to see past simple behavior science toward quality of life theory and how to address problematic behavior while building person-centered plans so people can lead their best lives.

“Matt embodied all of that,” she said.

Lawless admired Matt’s passion and his knack for pulling together pockets of support and resources at county, regional and statewide levels. Although he dealt with the effects of ALS while simultaneously avoiding COVID-19, Matt pushed through the challenges as long as possible.

He brought people together, Lawless said, even when he could no longer use his fingers to type or make a presentation with his voice due to the effects of the progressive neurodegenerative disease, which weakens muscles and can take away the ability to walk, chew and talk.

“I remember about Matt, what he did. He came in and held the room, and for a man who loved to invite everyone to the table to not be able to freely use his voice and share his gifts with the world was very frustrating for him,” Lawless recalled through tears. “And that made it frustrating for us to watch, but he never stopped trying.”

Contributed Matt’s son Ken Enyart made this hand print and rallying cry during his father’s illness.

Matt’s 30-years’ worth of contributions span Kansas and will continue changing lives in other states, including Iowa and Oregon, Lawless said.

“I have to carry on his legacy,” she said. “His work in quality of life theory is huge, and we need to be doing a better job as clinicians to measure that. And so it’s hard, because we’re mourning the loss of an essential part of our human service industry, but that work doesn’t stop.”

Kurth said in her statement, “We, in the Department of Special Education, are deeply honored to have known him and to have shared in his work. He was a relentless advocate and is deeply missed.”

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The person who knew Matt the longest, his mom, remembered him as someone with a big heart who strived to include everyone.

Betty Hargrove-Gomez recalled a birthday party she attended with Matt when he was about 5. As candy rushed from a broken piñata, children scrambled, and Matt went to work.

“He’d go around picking up candy and then go around and hand it to all the kids who didn’t get any,” Hargrove-Gomez said. “He’s been like that since he was that young, giving to somebody else. Making sure all the other kids were taken care of.”

Hargrove-Gomez said Matt showed her how the misuse of mental health language — the word “crazy,” for example — could hurt people. He also advocated for the Kansas City football team to change its mascot.

“He was a teacher. He was teaching all the time,” she said.

Contributed Matt and Jon Enyart with mom Betty Hargrove-Gomez

At the celebration of Matt’s life held in August at the White Schoolhouse in North Lawrence, an attendee left a card that Hargrove-Gomez said summed up the way Matt helped others. The author called herself “A Girl He Saved.”

“I had an argument with my parents and he let me into his home,” Betty read from the card. “So he found a safe place for me to stay. I’m grateful that he let me in through the kindness of his heart.”

Matt parented four children and two step kids. He was a proud dad.

Matt’s sister and one of his primary caregivers, Alex Gomez, recalled Matt’s final days and how, when he couldn’t sleep, he loved to list out his children’s best qualities and recall them one by one.

“He would constantly ask and make sure that they’d be okay, that we’d make sure they were okay,” Gomez said in an email.

The GoFundMe effort “Matt for All, All for Matt” remains open to receive donations for Matt’s children. At publication time, the fund had collected more than $18,000.

Although she “wouldn’t wish ALS on anyone,” Gomez feels grateful it forced her to spend more time with Matt, who was 23 years older. She served as her brother’s “amplifier” — leaning in close to hear him and then sharing his communication with others in the room. She said Matt maintained his stubbornness, sense of humor and advocacy until the end.

“He wasn’t against making noise, and forcing change when necessary,” Gomez said. “He thought disruption was necessary in order to get the change you wanted in some cases. He never went on disability, working until the end to make the world a better, more inclusive place.”

Matt’s wife, who is a social worker, shared her appreciation for those who helped support Matt and their family from his diagnosis to his death and with everything in between, including palliative care and assistive technology.

“You’re holding on to any quality of life that you can get,” Matthews said.

Contributed Matt Enyart tries out eye-tracking software at the Schiefelbusch Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic at the University of Kansas in 2022.

Cheri Mathis, a social worker at the ALS Association Mid-America Chapter, provided a wealth of support, Matthews said, as did Ascend Hospice and Matt’s in-home caregiver.

“Her name is Allison Richards and she was literally with him until the end, coming up to this Olathe Hospice House where he spent the last 48 hours of life,” Matthews said in an email.

Matt’s legacy of giving back will continue via the ALS studies in which he participated and the tools that helped Matt adapt after his diagnosis in 2019. The customized wheelchair he received through the Live Like Lou Foundation has been donated to the ALS Association.

During the intense heat and humidity of August, Matt’s family worked with Eric Struckhoff and White Schoolhouse owner Jennifer Roth to move Matt’s wheelchair ramps from his home to the venue in time for his celebration of life. More work is planned to make the event space ADA-compliant, thus increasing its accessibility to the Lawrence community.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Kris Matthews holds a photo of Matt Enyart and herself. Matthews’ husband, a lifelong advocate for others, died in July.

Matthews, who married Matt in 2020, said she would remember him as someone who gravitated toward people who shared his passions for system improvement and quality of life measurement not only in the disability field but also in community planning and social services. He remained convinced he could tackle the problems plaguing systems in our society, she said.

“He always had this saying, ‘relationships are everything,’” Matthews said. “And so he just was able to maintain so many relationships, and I think it’s because he always saw the best in people and wanted them to come on this journey.”

In alignment with Matt’s love for humor and a good pun, those closest to Matt each received a small bit of his cremains. The words “Urn that frown upside down” are printed on the containers.

Matthews said she might sprinkle some of Matt’s ashes in rural Kansas, where the two traveled together for work. Other family members have scattered a portion of Matt’s ashes at Table Rock Lake in Missouri at a spot where multiple generations of the Enyart family have enjoyed lake time together. Some of Matt’s cremains also could be buried in Lawrence with a headstone.

“He loved that town so dearly and the people in it,” Steve said.

Contributed Matt Enyart shows his spirit while working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s just so him and one my favorites,” Kris Matthews said.
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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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