2022 Distinguished Alumni- Matt Potts
Matt Potts- Class of 1997
It is said that the arc of the moral universe doesn’t bend itself. One must get involved.
Matthew Potts, owner of the language school he founded in Chrzanow, Poland, did just that after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin’s cluster bombs fell from the skies. He went to work to help the women, men and children in villages just across the border and those who fled to Chrzanow.
When fleeing Ukrainian children and their mothers poured into town, people opened their homes, a shop owner housed over 40 in her cosmetic salon, and a local help center opened. Matt, his wife, Natalia, and close friends kept it supplied so the new arrivals could gather what they needed to survive.
In March 2022, Matt and his team had set up a private Facebook page so he could appeal to US donors for financial support. He knew his small town could not sustain their rescue mission alone for very long, but he had to strike a delicate balance: full transparency to donors while avoiding local resentment towards Ukrainians. The key to the success of widening the financial pool to the United States was simple. It was a direct shot from donor to place of need. Matt and Natalia Potts were giving their time and energy freely for the cause. Operational costs were zero. In the month of March alone, they raised and spent $15,000 to directly sustain the people of Ukraine.
Matt and Natalia purchased medicine, food, diapers, refrigerators, sleeping bags, generators, washing machines and more. Matt made several trips to Lviv himself to ensure successful delivery and to better understand where and what support was most needed. With trusted friends Igor, Tomasz and Pawel driving their own vans to Lviv to deliver goods to Irena and Misha Husev and their sons, Svitozar and Radomyr, desperately needed help could now reach orphanages, medical shelters, nursing homes.
Moving supplies month after month over the border to survivors in Lviv, Bucha,
and Kherson took courage, resilience and ingenuity. If one door closed on a rescue plan, Matt found another door to open. He says all this would not be possible without the ability to “kombinowac”, a Polish verb with a complex English equivalent,
“‘Kombinowac’ is my favorite Polish word because it’s so powerfully connected to the Polish mentality. Being creative, endlessly resourceful and incredibly stubborn in the face of a problem you are trying to solve is something the Polish people seem to be born with. Not all things can be done the right way, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to be done.”
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Matt grew up in West Chicago, Illinois. He was the youngest of four children. He describes his dad as being the kindest person he ever knew, making friends of strangers, the grocery clerk, or the bus driver. In elementary school when Matt feigned sickness in an effort to avoid a test or homework he hadn’t finished, his dad wouldn’t have it. Matt learned to take responsibility for his work, or the lack of it. He learned to show up and stretch himself beyond his comfort zone.
His mom opened their home to those in need. She taught English as a Second Language in Wheaton, put up several Vietnamese men in their basement, and hosted a parade of foreign exchange students.
Matt admits to being a casual student, preferring to entertain his classmates rather than striving to achieve the best grades. But, by his sophomore year, several WeGo teachers had uncovered the serious student behind the jovial mask. He joined the cast of Oklahoma, and as a senior played Garry Lejeune in Noises Off and served as Minority Floor leader in Government Simulation classes. He lettered on the Track & Field team in high jump, triple jump, and the 400 meter run. That fall Matt arrived at Truman State University with an open mind and a curiosity for learning. His professors continued what his teachers at WeGo had started, instilling in him a reverence for knowledge and a blueprint for how to transmit it to others. Matt Potts was on track to become a teacher himself.
In 2002, Matt graduated with a BA in German and returned to West Chicago to help his dad with his printing business, Apple Graphics. He mentored teens at BR Ryall YMCA as a day camp director and served as a substitute teacher in Districts 33 and 94. In 2006 he moved to Austria where he met Natalia, his future wife, and found his calling as a teacher of English as a foreign language. He earned his TESOL Certificate (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), and he and Natalia started their life together in Poland.
Their daughter, Gabriella, was born in 2010, and two years later Matt opened the first of two private English language schools, Extra English. In 2013, Gabriella, who was born with Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome), was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and hospitalized for chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The experience changed him. Late one evening in a chair at the end of a hallway with his daughter’s treatment going in the right direction, he felt an overwhelming sense of peace wash over him:
“I realized that all we really truly need to be happy is a little bit of food, a dry warm place to sleep, loved ones near you, health or at least hope for good health, and if you have all that AND a hot cup of tea, you’ve got everything.”
Matthew says he would be nothing without Natalia by his side. It was she who wrote to the local newspaper to advocate for their daughter’s rights in school and in public life. Natalia is now a committee member in a local NGO called INTEgracja, which promotes integration and development opportunities for children with a myriad of special needs. World Down Syndrome Day, March 21st, has come to be recognized in their community through their efforts. Children in nearly every classroom in Chrzanow wear colorful mismatched socks, and educators dedicate time to raise awareness and promote tolerance, acceptance and kindness toward those with Trisomy 21.
Friday evenings after a full week of administration and teaching, procuring supplies and loading vans headed into Ukraine, Matt opens the doors of Extra English to the town’s Ukrainian women. They are learning English: a skill vital to improving the lives of their families wherever they may go when this war finally
The CHS Educational Foundation and WCCHS are honored to present the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award for Humanitarian Aid to Matthew Potts,
class of 1997.