Joy of living, joy of giving

Elizabeth Matthews
Elizabeth Matthews

Former performer shares how she gets the most out of life, helps others to do so, too

Eyes alive with inquisitive intensity, set over an undimmable smile of youth that practically screams “all things are possible!” — her conversation laced with ripples of giggles that gather momentum into roars of laughter — the woman practically vibrates with passion.

At age 30, Elizabeth Matthews — until recently the manager of the United Way of Southern Nevada’s Young Philanthropists Society — is a self-described “student of the world.” That world includes: extensive performing credits (from cruise ships and theater stages to a clown act and singing gondolier gigs); globe-trotting (teaching English in Macau and Russia); and go-for-broke thrill-seeking (skydiving and bungee-jumping, with cage-diving with great white sharks next on the to-do list). Don’t forget the goat impressions (no kidding).

Beyond that is the commitment to “giving back” for the Palo Verde High School graduate. She’s just started a new position as community engagement manager for the Golden Knights Foundation, which supports Las Vegas nonprofits Matthews talked to Luxury about her 2016-17 work for United Way:

How would you describe the Young Philanthropists Society, which was founded in 2009? 

We have about 70 members. They‘re professionals, 20 to 40 years old, who want to engage with the community. We volunteer as a group and do fundraising events. We make contributions to the United Way, $1,500 a year or more, to join YPS.

What’s the main work of the society? 

When it was founded they would pick a project and move on, like a Christmas present drive at an elementary school. After a few years they wanted to have a legacy project, so fast-forward to 2012, and the Piggy Bank program. It’s a financial literacy program created with partner agencies like Andson, the nonprofit, and the Silver State Schools Credit Union. It’s a curriculum-based, experiential learning course. Kids learn about wants versus needs, the importance of saving, what a bank is. We have three schools involved: Howard E. Hollingsworth Elementary School, Walter V. Long Elementary and Walter Bracken Elementary. And we’ll be able to expand that.

What other programs are being developed? 

We’re going to be working with Green Our Planet, planting gardens. We paint schools a lot. We’ll be working with Big Brothers and Big Sisters, the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Clark County School District and the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth. We’re finding organizations to partner with, and getting community leaders in town to do a roundtable and ask them questions about the secrets to their success. The mission is to empower the next generation of leaders.

Studies show the millennial generation is more inclined toward volunteerism than previous generations. Why do you think that’s the case? 

We want to get our hands dirty and know we’re physically making a difference. I think it’s because of access to information. I can’t scroll through my Facebook without seeing those heart-wrenching stories of people or animals in need, not just locally but globally. We feel a sense of purpose.

Is Las Vegas a philanthropically inclined city? 

I’ve seen this town transform. There’s been a shift in the mentality and people are more willing to roll up their sleeves, to give time rather than money. I attribute it to the downtown movement. What happened there created a cool culture we hadn’t had before. It’s this change in idealism, people getting more invested in the community. Before, it was so transient that people just didn’t care. Now people are rooted here and want to see it get better.

How did your passion for volunteerism begin?

My family is LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), so I grew up with that component of helping your fellow man. My first job, when I was 16, was working with children diagnosed with autism. I was a behavioral aide. It taught me patience and selflessness and love. Those kiddos, they can’t help their outbursts and anger, they don’t know how to communicate it. When you get a breakthrough and they’re able to do something for the first time like tie their shoes, it’s the most rewarding experience. It’s the moment you see a kid’s face and they understand they’re capable of so much more than they’ve been told and they have a future in front of them, that’s what makes it worth it.

You ardently pursued an entertainment career before this Why did you turn toward philanthropic work?

I was on the edge of 30 and thinking, I don’t want to do this hustle anymore. It’s a hard life. I’m talented enough to work professionally but obviously I’m not a famous actor. I had to find a career and I thought, when was I the happiest and most fulfilled? And it was giving back, so a friend got my foot in the door (at United Way).

What did you gain, personally and profesionally, from teaching in China and Russia? 

I grew up a lot. It created a taste for travel and a wanderlust. Travel has been the best education. You learn so much about the world and an appreciation for the luxuries we have here, and of other cultures.

You’ve bungee-jumped off the Macau Tower in China, and the Stratosphere Tower here, among other places. Why are you such a daredevil?

I love the adrenaline. After the adrenaline it’s almost euphoria. When you skydive, the scariest part is the moment you look before you freefall. Then you freefall and pull the parachute and the world goes silent and there’s nothing but vast, open, beautiful nature.

But wanting to cage-dive with great white sharks? 

I don’t know why. I’m crazy, I guess. Why not?