SMALL TOWNS: Chilton family honors son’s legacy with playground project
CHILTON, Wis. (WBAY) - In the 12 years since he passed away, some amazing things have taken place in a Calumet County community. And it’s thanks to the family of Matt Kolbe making it their mission to honor his legacy.
This week in Small Towns, we travel to Chilton, soon to be home to a very special playground.
At Nennig Park, Matt’s memory and impact he made in his hometown are present.
“When I think about things now, totally grateful and blessed that God granted us Matt as our firstborn. We were so blessed by his unconditional love, and he gave us a million times more than we could have ever given him,” says Sandi Kolbe, Matt’s mom.
“I was blessed for 23 years to be his dad,” adds Ron Kolbe, Matt’s dad.
Born in 1987 with Down syndrome, Matt faced several health challenges during his childhood.
Despite that, he lived every day full of laughter and joy and a lively spirit that quickly made him an inspiration around town.
“No matter your ability or your background, where you came from, it’s all about accepting people for who they are, and that’s what Matt was all about is just loving someone for who they were,” explains Luke Kolbe, Matt’s brother.
“He was such a presence in school that you knew who he was, and you’d see him in the hallway and he’d smile at you and it would make your whole day,” says Emily Kolbe, Matt’s sister-in-law.
Of all his joys, one of Matt’s greatest was baseball.
“He served as manager for all the Little League teams in Chilton up through the high school varsity level. He was the kid in the dugout, and coaches wanted him there because he broke the tension for the kids, he made the game fun, he could pick the players up after having a bad play. He just had that personality about him,” says Sandi.
And Matt loved everyone, even the other team.
“One time we were up at the ballpark and we couldn’t find Matt, well he was sitting with another team eating an ice cream and they had bribed him to be their manager,” says Ron with a chuckle.
In 2011, the Kolbe family, and the community, lost their shining light.
“When he passed, we knew that that was a legacy that we had to carry on,” recalls Sandi.
With donations received at his funeral, the Kolbes started a memorial fund with the goal of supporting charities that foster beliefs important to Matt, like acceptance and inclusion.
“We do a lot of things behind the scenes. We’ve put new tires on cars for people that are driving to chemotherapy. We’ve filled freezers. We pay off electric bills. We’ve stocked food shelves. We ensure that all kids get Christmas gifts in Chilton,” explains Sandi.
The fund has also awarded 40 scholarships to local high school seniors.
An annual softball and baseball tournament, which includes a Field of Dreams game for those with disabilities, is one of many fundraisers in Matt’s honor.
“Done our fair share of grilling up brats and auctioning off meat raffle prizes and different things, and it’s been amazing to see the community rally behind a cause like this,” says Luke.
Two years ago, Matt’s family took a leap of faith, launching the Matt Kolbe Memorial Foundation.
The mission: to build a $570,000, all-inclusive playground in Chilton.
To date, the foundation has raised nearly $500,000.
City leaders are simply blown away.
“With their passion that they had to get it done and the resources they had and how they did their fundraising throughout the city, it was just amazing,” says Chilton City Administrator David DeTroye.
This fall, construction begins on the Matt Kolbe All-Inclusive Playground, at Nennig Park of course, where Matt had so much fun.
“Matt was so accepted in Chilton, like we are so blessed to have raised him here, the community really embraced who he was as a person and allowed him to be who he was,” says Sandi.
“He was an amazing, loving, accepting person that taught us a ton about life, and the playground itself and what it represents embodies truly how Matt lived his life,” adds Luke.
And Luke can’t wait to take his young son, Henry Matthew, to play at the park.
“So looking forward to the day where he’ll be able to be on that playground, too, and I can’t wait to tell him stories about his uncle Matt, and that’s going to be a special moment for me,” says Luke, holding back tears.
For more information on the playground project, including how to donate, visit https://mattkolbememorialfoundation.square.site.
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