Words Spoken at Arlington Cemetery by Matt’s Mother, Pam Cameron, at Arlington Cemetery for the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps in September, 2011:
My son, Matt Costa, is a fallen Peace Corps volunteer. He was 5 feet 5 ½ – about 130 pounds soaking wet, wiry and athletic with curly brown hair and sparkling brown eyes – 2 weeks shy of his 25th birthday on September 3, 2006 when he and fellow volunteer, Justin Brady, died in Mali when the mast of their homemade boat hit a power line as they sailed the Niger River. This is how Matt’s college fraternity brother described him a few days after his death, and I quote: “He was a risk taker, an adventurer – an example I followed. He was fierce and fearless, with a heart and perspective that did not match his size. His outlook led him to places few are brave enough to venture – he strived to be exceptional. He was a novel person with a mind that was always working.”
I don’t think this description is unique to Matt. It probably describes most volunteers. They are fierce, fearless, brave, novel, and big-hearted. That is what it takes to travel thousands of miles from home, from one’s family and friends, into a foreign land where they may be no plumbing, electricity, running water – where the amenities we take for granted don’t exist. They become ambassadors for America by venturing into underdeveloped countries and following the cultural mores of the people with whom they live and work. Most come home as changed people. They are forever defined by their experiences in the Peace Corps. A small number, like my son and the other fallen volunteers, aren’t so lucky. The Peace Corps became their final chapter. But I think most of them died doing what they wanted – what they chose – what they loved.
My son, Matt, wanted to join the Peace Corps since he was about 12 or 13. He was always globally engaged and had a relentless thirst to experience other cultures and to help those less fortunate. I remember the night before he left for Chad. It was September 21, 2003 – his 22nd birthday – a Sunday. He savored every second of watching his beloved Washington Redskins – in what he knew would be the last football game he’d watch on TV for a long time. They lost to the Giants in overtime. He was frustrated. He thought fate would smile upon him and remove the Giants jinx from the Redskins because after all it was his birthday and he was heading for staging and then Chad the next morning. I remember thinking how much I take watching TV for granted. Yet, here was my brave and selfless son volunteering to give up not just TV, but electricity, bathroom facilities, running water, and I felt so very proud.
The Peace Corps is unique as are its volunteers. They change others’ views about Americans. They live and work among the people in their villages. They do more than their official Peace Corps duties. They engage their neighbors and students and co-workers one conversation, one soccer game, one song, one friendship at a time. They leave legacies when they leave their countries.
I’d like to share with you one of Matt’s legacies from Chad. Matt loved music and he played a mean guitar and harmonica. He was a huge Bob Dylan fan. One of his goals was to use music to bridge the cultural and language gaps between himself and the Chadians. He would gather the Chadian kids from his village, Mani, and play and sing Bob Dylan songs with them. One particular song, “Who killed Davey Moore,” a social commentary about a world champion prizefighter killed by an opponent in 1963, was a favorite of the kids. Matt would sing the verses, and the Chadian children would sing the chorus, which goes “Who killed Davey Moore…Why and what’s the reason for?” The kids didn’t even know what these words meant, but they were catchy and the kids remembered them. Every time they saw Matt at the market or in the village, they would get big smiles on their faces and start chanting the chorus as they pointed at Matt….and I would imagine to this day there are Chadian kids in a village called Mani who still song “Who Killed Davey Moore…Why and what’s the reason for” – from a Dylan song that most people in the U.S. have never even heard.
Matt loved the Peace Corps so much that he decided to extend his service to Mali after 2 years in Chad. We traveled to Mali on the one-year anniversary of Matt’s death to dedicate a soccer field in his memory. We raised money to build bleachers and a children’s garden at the field in his village. While there, we heard from many Malians and Peace Corps volunteers about the legacies Matt left in Mali as well. One volunteer told us about how Matt and Justin planned to use their boat to teach the Malian women, who wash their clothes along the banks of the Niger River, how to build soap.
This same gentleman described Matt and Justin as follows, and I quote: “The kind of people who make you glad to be alive, who make you proud to live and love life, who give and renew your hope in all of humanity. With their inspirationally indefatigable attitudes, energy, adventurous spirit and good humor, they truly made the world a better place.”
I believe this describes every volunteer – current, returned, fallen, or future.
The fallen volunteers leave a special legacy. Many of them were young – with almost an entire lifetime remaining to grow, experience, and make a difference. That is why it’s so important that we remember them and what they stood for. For us, after we dedicated the soccer field in Mali, we started a scholarship in Matt’s memory at his alma mater, Tulane University, given to a service oriented student to carry on Matt’s legacy. We also hold a benefit concert called “Music for Matt” every year in New Orleans. All the proceeds from Music for Matt go to his scholarship and to support Peace Corps volunteer projects in Mali.
I’d now like to quote Matt – this is from the last email he wrote before he died. He was planning to go to law school and talking about what he wanted to do after graduation. “I think I want to do something with international law, or with asylum or immigrant type stuff. I like Africa, but not as much as I love the world. I want to be able to move around in it.” My heart aches for the future Matt lost 2 days after writing this e-mail. It aches for the loss of all the fallen volunteers and, collectively, the good they would have done in this world. But my heart also swells with pride when I read that e-mail – because of the difference Matt and the other fallen volunteers made in their time here on earth – however long or short it may have been. I honor the 280 fallen volunteers. They represent the best of America and they have left their indelible spirit all around the world.
Announcing the Costa Memorial Scholarship through Sigma Phi Epsilon at Tulane University
This scholarship will be awarded annually in Matt’s memory to a student who embodies the characteristics so important to Matt: giving globally, sports, music, active involvement in the fraternity – simply making the world a better place. Matt loved Sig Ep and Tulane, and the hope is that this scholarship will keep his memory alive and help his “brothers” continue his good work for many years to come. The award will be presented every October in New Orleans by his family. The recipient will be selected based on the following criteria:
- a demonstrated interest in community service with a global perspective
- active involvement with the Louisiana Alpha Chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon, particularly with regard to athletics and music
- an adventurous spirit
- an interest in politics and its role in making the world a better place
- a demonstrated financial need.
If you wish to make a TAX-DEDUCTIBLE contribution to Matt’s scholarship, you may do so online here. Under Purpose, select the fund “Matthew Costa Memorial Scholarship.” Or, if you prefer to contribute by mail, you can do so by sending a check noting such to: Sigma Phi Epsilon Educational Foundation, P.O. Box 1901, Richmond, VA 23218 Donations to this scholarship can be made at any time as we hope to keep this scholarship going annually for a long time.
A Promising Life Of Giving Cut Down In Tragic Mishap
Matthew Costa, 24, of Cheshire, died Sept. 3.
November 5, 2006
By ANNE M. HAMILTON, Special To The Courant
Matthew Costa combined a deep-seated idealism with practicality and, in his own unassuming way, set an example for others.
He was a serious philosophy major who loved soccer, volleyball and the guitar, on which he played both classical and popular music.
He starred in a play in high school and was interested in politics. He was so intrigued by West Africa that he extended his Peace Corps commitment and was planning to be a lawyer so he could help others.
Costa grew up in Cheshire, the son of Frank Costa and Pam Cameron, and had a younger sister, Danielle. Wiry and athletic, he started playing soccer when he was 5 and excelled at running and jumping. He had an independent spirit: Around age 6, Costa flew alone to Washington to visit his grandparents, and the pilot invited him to sit in the cockpit.
In middle school, he participated in a student ambassador program that sent him to England, Scotland and Wales.
“He understood that the world was way bigger than Cheshire,” his mother said. In high school, Costa was elected treasurer of his class.
His mathematical skills earned him a scholarship to the University of Connecticut to study actuarial science, but he turned it down in favor of a broader liberal arts education.
“He thought of college as a way of becoming an educated person, not as a vocational-technical idea,” his mother said. Costa chose Tulane University in New Orleans because it offered a contrast to his Connecticut upbringing. It was in the South, in a city far from home.
His college major was philosophy, and when his grandfather urged him to be practical and think of his future, “he said he was more concerned with public service,” said Bernard Levin, his grandfather. “He wanted to use law to help people who were underprivileged.”
“People just liked being around him,” said Todd Gilbert, a college friend. “He was incredibly funny. He made you smile.”
Costa joined the Peace Corps after graduating from Tulane in 2003, offering to go anywhere. He had studied French in school, so the Peace Corps sent him to Chad, a poor, French speaking landlocked country in north central Africa where there has been sporadic fighting over the years. (The Peace Corps closed its program there this year.)
On an informal Peace Corps scale of adversity, Chad ranked among the toughest assignments.
“Chad had the reputation: If you could do Chad in the Peace Corps, you could do anything,” his mother said.
In Mani, a village close to N’Djamena, Chad’s capital, Costa taught English and helped start a soccer league. When he realized that the children had no concept of geography, he had them paint a large world map on a wall of the school so they could see where they lived and where he came from.
“He really wanted them to understand where they fit in the world,” his mother said. The village was isolated, and sometimes his family didn’t hear from him for two months at a time. But they quickly learned that he was happy.
“He loved Africa,” his mother said.
After his two years in Chad were up, he asked to extend his commitment and was assigned to Mali, another French-speaking country in Africa. “He wanted to make a change on a small level and be an ambassador for America,” said Chris Kennerlly, a high school friend.
Costa was assigned to Kita, a less-isolated village than his previous assignment. He had a refrigerator and a cell phone that worked. He could e-mail from a café in the village.
Besides teaching English, Costa started a weekly radio show featuring American music that made him a minor celebrity.
Malian women traditionally pound millet, a native grain, into flour, which is boiled into a porridge eaten with sauce. Costa gave them a grinder that made their job quicker and easier. He also taught Malian men how to repair water pumps.
He played on the local soccer team and worked with “Shoes for Mali” after learning that two of his players shared one pair of sneakers.
Last summer, Costa and three other volunteers decided to build a sailboat.
For their first trip, they were sailing the Niger River. Photographs show their wide smiles.
The wind propelled them more quickly than they had anticipated, so they lowered the sail. They were approaching rapids and rowing against the tide, trying to reach an inlet, when the mast hit a high-tension wire. Costa and Justin Brady, a volunteer from Oregon, were thrown from the boat. Costa and Brady died, but the other volunteers survived.
Costa had been scheduled to return to the United States two weeks later to take his law-school admissions test.
“He was very intelligent, very insightful,” said Nelson Cronyn, Costa’s director in Chad. “He was able to teach and stay positive with teaching, despite the fact that the school was dysfunctional and cheating was rampant.”
Costa talked often about politics and his career plans. “He probably would have remained working in development,” Cronyn said.
“I imagine he would have had a significant impact. … I imagine he would have been very, very successful.”
To reach the family of Matthew Costa, please send an email to his mom, Pam Cameron, at firstname.lastname@example.org