The tragic loss of her mother two months after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 inspired the college senior to implore her campus community to donate blood.

“She was diagnosed with cancer in September of my freshman year. She needed 13 blood transfusions during the course of her treatment. It was a three-year battle,” Leigh Ann said. “I wanted to challenge the assumptions about blood donation that happened after Sept. 11 and encourage people that they should be giving blood regularly— not only because of a national tragedy.”

The support of friends, including her now-husband, Matthew Wilson ’04, and faculty members helped Leigh Ann through that difficult time.

Leigh Ann came to Juniata from East Stroudsburg, Pa., to study biology then switched to marketing and communication. Matt, from Mundy’s Corner, Pa., studied biology with the goal of becoming a physician.

A desire to help others drew Matt to volunteer service with Habitat for Humanity while he pursued his studies in pre-med.

“We did some projects around Huntingdon, but the big ones were the spring break trips,” Matt said. “The first year, we went to Kentucky. It was my first major exposure to Habitat and how things worked. During my sophomore year, we went to New Mexico, then to Georgia my junior year, and Alabama in my senior year.”

Following Matt’s graduation from Juniata, he enrolled at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, where Leigh Ann had been employed since earning her degree. The couple married in 2005.

Settling in York, giving remained central in the couple’s lives and they found ways to instill that love of helping others in their two children, Nolan, 10, and Odette, 7.

“I always dreaded Matt being in a car accident,” Leigh Ann said. “I called Matt on his commute. I never call him, but I called him to tell him a funny story about Odette. He didn’t answer, so I went downstairs to work out. He called me back. I heard the crash, but the call didn’t end. I just kept yelling, ‘Can you hear me?,’ and asking him to pick up.”

What Leigh Ann heard was the impact of a pick-up truck traveling at 75 mph slamming into the rear of Matt’s vehicle, ultimately causing a four-car accident.

“A nurse who was two cars back was able to tell me he was responsive. She could see his doctor’s badge and that he worked at Pinnacle,” she said. “At that point, I had no idea of the severity.”

After that brief conversation, Leigh Ann received no further information from the scene. She decided to head to Pinnacle’s emergency department in hopes of locating her husband.

“I went to the emergency room and I was immediately patched through to Hershey and told he had a brain bleed,” said Leigh Ann, who learned that the road closure she had avoided on the way to the hospital and the medevac helicopter her coworkers told her about were both related to Matt’s accident.

Matt doesn’t remember anything about the accident or the three-night hospitalization that followed. His first memories are of being home and realizing he had staples in his head. Healing from the brain injury and whiplash required intensive occupational, physical, and speech therapy—a challenging regimen for a family with young children. Fortunately, an unusual solution proved perfect as all three therapies were provided at a nearby facility for senior citizens.

“The ladies there were very nice to me,” Matt said. “Everything was in one location, which made it easier for Leigh Ann as she didn’t have to take off as much time from work.”

Matt’s employer offered paid leave for the eight weeks he was unable to work and car insurance provided a settlement to cover all of the expenses relating to the accident.

“I’ve been very active with United Way for a decade or more,” Leigh Ann said, adding that the night before the accident she did something she had never done before—gave to a GoFundMe campaign online. “In my mind, that was a bit of karma.”

The knowledge that their family’s financial wellbeing was safeguarded and the close call with loss reinforced the importance of giving to others and supporting their community.

“There are all of these pieces of almost losing and losing. We know there are so many painful things that happen in the world,” she said. “I lost my mom. We lost a baby to miscarriage in 2008. Matt’s dad had a heart attack in 2010. It happens more than it should.”

Their experiences with extremely difficult life circumstances ignited a desire to redouble their commitment to giving, including a gift to Juniata.

“Our lesson in life is that you don’t know when things might end, we are not going to live forever— no one is. But, we can leave a lasting legacy behind that will help others.”Leigh Ann (Suhrie) Wilson ’02

Motivated by the loss of Leigh Ann’s mother, the Wilsons made the decision to fund a scholarship, “Life is Short,” to aid Juniata students who have lost a parent. “The unfortunate situation is that there are five students who fell into that category,” Matt said. “This is for anyone, regardless of what year they are in. And, they can do it again the following year.”

Matt and Leigh Ann created “The Brain Matters,” an endowment through the UPMC Pinnacle Foundation to help cover hospital bills for those suffering brain injuries and to provide technology and education for the Central Pennsylvanian neurologists providing treatment.

“Giving to the UPMC Pinnacle Foundation was a no brainer,” said Leigh Ann. “Matt’s employer protected us all along the way. For us, that was an easy way to give back.”

The Wilsons were recognized this year by the United Way and became two of the youngest members of the Alexis de Tocqueville Society. The society local philanthropic leaders who devote their time, talent, and funds to create long-lasting changes.

“Our lesson in life is that you don’t know when things might end,” said Leigh Ann. “We are not going to live forever—no one is. But, we can leave a lasting legacy behind that will help others.”