United Way’s Matt Ryerson nears a significant running anniversary

Personality Profile

By ALLEN MINCEY Staff Writer
Posted 10/31/17

“I heard this recently and feel it relates to me — I am a turtle on a fence post,” said Matt Ryerson.

The United Way of the Ocoee Region president and CEO said the turtle in the analogy …

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United Way’s Matt Ryerson nears a significant running anniversary

Personality Profile


“I heard this recently and feel it relates to me — I am a turtle on a fence post,” said Matt Ryerson.

The United Way of the Ocoee Region president and CEO said the turtle in the analogy couldn’t get to the top of the post without help, and he feels that way about his work with the local nonprofit organization. It takes many people to make the United Way a success.

However, though he compares himself to that turtle, he is also like the hare who raced the turtle in another literary reference. He literally runs and runs, not against a “turtle,” but against the clock, time, and himself.

Ryerson is nearing his three-year anniversary of daily runs, taking time primarily each morning to run around five miles. He runs alone and with friends who enjoy morning jaunts in the morning.

He has made many friends since moving to Cleveland from Norwalk, Ohio. Many have been made through his wife, Heather, and his four children: Jackson, Chloe, Gabby and Elsie.

How he met his wife is quite an interesting story, especially if you don’t hear the entire story. The two met at a psychiatric hospital, and he says this tends to get raised eyebrows when he mentions it.

“She was a licensed professional counselor, by trade, and teaches psychology right now.  I was in an administrative position there,” Ryerson said. “It makes for an interesting dinner topic when we say we met in a psychiatric hospital.”

His first job was in a nonprofit setting, eventually working with the Metro Chattanooga YMCA.

“I actually started working at the Y in college, and moved here in 1997 to work with the Y, so I have been here almost 20 years,” he remembered. “I spent five years at the psychiatric hospital after the Y, from about 2000 to 2005, then Rodney Fitzgerald called and I began working with Safe Schools, Healthy Students.

“This was really a life-changing moment for me,” he said.

He started in 2009 at United Way, and just a few years ago, upon the retirement of longtime president and CEO Brenda Abel, was selected to head the organization.

“We are a very healthy and exciting organization, and a lot of that is due to the people who came before me, and Brenda, who laid an incredible foundation for the United Way,” Ryerson said. 

“Brenda and Michael Cole started our look at not just raising funds for our agencies, but looking at impact in our community,” he added. “Quite a bit, I get credit for stuff ... put in place before me. And our staff, our incredible board of directors and volunteers — we have been incredibly blessed to work with all of these people who care about our community.”

The community is important to Ryerson, and in a different aspect than just leading the United Way of the Ocoee Region. Now, he gets to see parts of the area every day through his running routine.

It is his way of performing in sports also. He remembered growing up in Ohio, and being a fan of professional sports in the Cleveland to the north has not been fun, he said.

“But, and here’s a bit of trivia, I got to hit against (Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher) Bob Feller in a fundraiser,” Ryerson said.

He now spends his “sports time” running, and has competition medals from about 35 races. His first race was in Indianapolis, and he has run in the Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon.

Ryerson said there are a few that he runs in every year, including one near Starkville, Miss., where his wife was born.

“I ran the Boston Marathon the year after the bombing, which was very emotional, and, of course, we ran to Boston,” in a locally coordinated relay run.

Now, he runs “every single day — it’s become a lifestyle, and part of my everyday existence,” Ryerson stated. He has run every day for about three years, and as of Oct. 17, had run 1,056 straight days. He runs with “a group of great guys” in the morning, and even when on vacation.

“I started on Nov. 27, and took on a challenge to try to avoid gaining weight,” he said. “I have two milestones ahead to reach. I have the three-year anniversary to meet, on Nov. 27, and the next one is ‘Forest Gump Day.’ If you remember the movie, he ran across the America and when the character stops, he says ‘I have run for three years, two months and 14 days, so that is my next milestone.”

The date when Ryerson hopes to match Forest Gump’s streak will fall in early February.

“It started off as a health thing, and began when my daughter was trying to sit on my wife’s lap when she was pregnant, and she was told that mommie had a baby in her stomach, so she sat in my lap and asked me about the baby in my stomach,” he said with a laugh.

“For me, what it does now, is there is something about how it opens the rest of your mind,” Ryerson said. 

He said he plans to with United Way of the Ocoee Region, which he calls his dream job, as long as he can, and said he realizes he cannot do it alone.

He said the saying about the turtle on the fence post sums up his present position with United Way.

“When I heard this, I was asked if I had ever seen a turtle on a fence post. Well, I was told, if I had, that turtle didn’t get there by itself,” Ryerson said. “There are a lot of people who invested in where I am at and how I got here. When I heard that I said, ‘That’s me!”


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