McCORDSVILLE — Any time McCordsville United Methodist Church hosted a kid-friendly event, Matthew Clegg was there.
He came out for Minecraft game nights and worship services alike, said the Rev. Daniel Payton, remembering the boy, always seated in the same spot during a special moment just for children at Sunday services. And he remembers the grief they all shared the morning that spot was empty.
The whole congregation grieved the loss of the 7-year-old, who died unexpectedly in 2016 from a medical condition.
About a year later, as church members discussed facility upgrades, a means of helping fill the void Matthew left behind took shape. Focusing on the church’s aging playground equipment, they realized there was an opportunity to honor the memory of the polite little boy who loved “Star Wars,” building with Lego bricks and who considered green his favorite color.
And that was the start of a $20,000 project to help Matthew’s memory live on.
Matthew’s father, David Clegg, and other church members are working to raise $20,000 to create a community playground, dedicated to Matthew, on the church property. They hope to complete the effort for a grand opening June 7, which would have been Matthew’s 10th birthday.
The original playground was built some 20 years ago by a young man working to earn his Eagle Scout rank in the Boy Scouts, Payton said. The new playground is designed to be twice the size of the current play area and will include equipment suitable for children ages 2 to 12, meeting all current safety standards, church leaders said. Several pieces of equipment will be green, a nod to Matthew’s favorite color, and the new playground will include spring rockers, one of the boy’s favorites, his father said.
Clegg was astonished when his church family wanted to honor his son with the playground replacement project, he said.
And he wanted to help.
He decided to take on a leadership role in raising the money, a small way to show his gratitude to the congregation for the gesture, he said.
Matthew died May 22, 2016, following a brief illness. He had been complaining of flu-like symptoms shortly before he was found unresponsive in his parents’ home; an autopsy found he suffered from peritonitis, a tear in his colon. His death was ruled the result of natural causes.
Church leaders remember the youngster fondly. Jo Scott, who taught Matthew in Sunday school for about three years, recalls his inquisitiveness and his eagerness to learn about his budding Christian faith.
“He was always paying attention,” she said. “He would ask questions until he understood. …He was very shy and quiet by nature, but when it came to learning, he wasn’t distracted by silliness.”
In the last year she taught him, the class was watching a video series about the Bible that included a take-home sheet at the end of the lesson.
Most kids never brought the homework back the next week; they weren’t being graded on it, after all, Scott said.
But Matthew was excited to fill out the sheet with all the information he’d learned, she remembered.
She’s pleased the playground will honor a loving boy who didn’t have the chance to grow up, she said.
“It’s a perfect way to me to honor his memory,” she said. “He’s always going to be a child to us; he’ll always be that sweet 7-year-old boy.”
About $6,200 has been raised since the committee formed in late September, Clegg said. A sign will declare the area “Matthew’s Playground” and list the names of anyone who donates $100 or more, he said.
Helping organize the fundraiser has served as a vehicle for healing for Matthew’s father, he said.
“Enough people of our church thought of Matthew highly enough that they want to put his name on it, and his name will be there as long as the playground,” he said. “More people will get to know Matthew and keep his memory going.”
Those who wish to donate may send a check directly to the church with “playground fund” in the memo or make an online donation at mccordsvilleumc.org.