First Lady Mary Pat Christie Recognizes Rutgers Students as 'New Jersey Heroes'
Matthew Cortland created a social club with his fraternity brothers so boys with autism could be one of the guys
In Denise Cortland’s household, there was one simple maxim: Make a commitment to public service. “I told them when they reached high school: Pick something other than yourself to be focused on,’” she said.
Her son, Matthew, struggled to find the right cause until one day in ninth grade his mother took him on the Southern New Jersey Walk Now for Autism Speaks. “Looking around and talking with families, I felt, ‘this is it,’” he said. “I just knew I could make a difference.”
On April 21, Matthew Cortland, a senior in Rutgers’ School of Arts and Sciences, was recognized by First Lady Mary Pat Christie for the difference he’s made in the lives of New Jersey families. Bringing the concept of a soccer club he started in high school to Rutgers, Matthew developed BrosUniteD, or B.U.D., a program with his fraternity in which members serve as mentors to adolescent boys with autism.
“I have four children, and when I heard about a Mom literally kicking her child out of bed to do a walk for autism, it gave me the chills,“ said New Jersey's First Lady, wife of Governor Chris Christie, at Rutgers’ Livingston Student Center, where she recognized Matthew Cortland; Alex Lewis, a Rutgers junior; and their fraternity Theta Delta Chi. This was the third award the First Lady has given through New Jersey Heroes, an initiative she launched this year to showcase the positive and unique impact that people and organizations can have on the state.
Christie said the high rate of autism in New Jersey – one in every 94 children in New Jersey, and one in 60 boys, is diagnosed with the developmental disorder – makes it imperative that New Jersey be on the forefront in programs for this community. “BrosUniteD exemplifies the kind of work we need to do . . . helping children with autism develop into the best people they can be,” she said.
BrosUniteD, in its second year, came to the attention of the First Lady through Peter Bell, an executive vice president with Autism Speaks, the largest science and advocacy organization in the country. Through the program, boys with autism, age 12-19, are paired up with three Theta Delta Chi brothers who support, encourage, and get to know them. On Sunday afternoons for seven weeks in the spring, “Big Bros” and “Little Bros" meet on or near Rutgers’ New Brunswick Campus, participating in activities like bowling, ice skating, rock wall climbing, and hiking.
Matthew credits Bell for planting the seeds for BroUniteD and for his support. “When I got to Rutgers, Theta Delta Chi was a new fraternity. I wanted us to establish ourselves through philanthropy and mapped out a plan of how we’d do this,” Matthew said. The brothers formed a team for the New Jersey Walk for Autism. "Our first year, we raised over $13,000."
But Bell, the father of a son with autism, said to Matthew over lunch one day that while raising dollars is important, “what you can provide, and others can’t, is to be a big brother and treat boys with autism like one of the guys.” BrosUniteD started with eight teenage boys, including Peter’s son Tyler, and has grown to 13 teens and 41 brothers.
Several of the “Little Bros” were present at the awards ceremony, along with many members of Theta Delta Chi. Liz Bell, the mother of Tyler, 18, who just completed his second year in BrosUniteD, watched her son follow around his big brothers Hasan Piker and Wylie Lopez, both Rutgers students. “He’s so happy to be here,” she said. “So much of Tyler’s life is prescribed. This is a time for him just to be and feel he belongs. We all need that.”
Matthew has enjoyed watching the boys adapt – through building skills and camaraderie – in ways their parents never expected. Last year, BrosUniteD organized an outing to a basketball game at Rutgers Athletic Stadium, full of bright lights, noise, and other stimuli to which someone with autism might be sensitive. “The parents were very nervous. But they loved it," Matthew said. "We were hanging out, doing what we do best as a fraternity, which is what makes them feel welcome and want to come back.”
He’s somewhat wistful about leaving what he started. Matthew is graduating and will spend two years with Teach for America in Miami, where he will teach English to sixth through 12 graders. But BrosUniteD is in good hands. Part of its creed is to train younger members to take over the mantle, which next year goes to Alex Lewis, a School of Arts and Science junior studying journalism and philosophy.