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Everyday Guy Matt Haroldsen Opens Up about his Truly Heroic Efforts

Everyday Guy Matt Haroldsen Opens Up about his Truly Heroic Efforts

Photo by Mike Harrison

For many of us, our golden birthday—the auspicious day when you turn the age of your birth date—is usually a time of boisterous celebration, complete with gifts, cake, and photos galore. But one man, an incredibly humble and thoughtful guy named Matt Haroldsen, chose to make his golden birthday a day of giving back and supporting those affected by HIV/AIDS and homelessness. His goal? By his 31st birthday on March 31st: to collect 300 pairs of shoes to donate to Housing Works. He campaigned for the fundraiser—GB4Shoes Drive—for a mere 35 days, reaching out to friends all over the world via Facebook and advertising his cause on Youtube. Within days, Matt’s fundraiser was reprinted in a number of New York City blogs and the donations began to flood in.

Matt’s story was forwarded to me by a Housing Works’ colleague and I knew I had to talk to him. Last Friday I had the opportunity to speak with Matt over the phone to learn more about his inspiration for GB4Shoes. We spoke about his passions, his inspirations, and his blockbuster fundraiser.

-Sunny Bjerk, Housing Works’ Communications Manager

Sunny Bjerk: Hi Matt, it’s really great to talk to you. Let’s start with the basics: where you’re from and what brought you to New York?

Matt Haroldsen: I grew up in the small town of Aloha, Oregon in a big old religious family of 9 kids. I moved out to New York about seven years ago.

SB: What brought you to New York?

MH: I wanted to pursue the acting thing, and I already had some friends out here doing it so I decided to take the leap. When I first moved out here I worked on some really great small stage projects, but I was drawn to the commercial and indie film world. Eventually I decided to buy myself a fancy camera and start writing, directing and producing my own work.

SB: What projects or issues inspire you?

MH: Well, a couple years ago when truly heartbreaking numbers of youth started taking their lives due to loss of hope and bullying, I started an anti-bullying and suicide prevention campaign to help raise money for a local foundation. The short videos involve a superhero, Mustache Man, who flies to the aid of kids who are being bullied. The videos include a little song and dance, and finishes with a sort of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” group number. There was an overwhelmingly positive response to the videos, and it has opened doors for me to speak to teens about bullying and self-acceptance.

SB: I understand that you are also quite passionate about HIV/AIDS issues as well, no?

MH: Yes, very much so. I grew up listening to the musical “Rent,” which I connected to lyrically and musically at a young age, particularly its depiction of life and relationships while having HIV/AIDS. Additionally, I also dated a guy who was an avid supporter of Camp Starlight, a camp for kids who have and/or are affected by HIV/AIDS. This started an even more impassioned support for the cause and getting involved. Five years later I traveled to the rural Kokoi Village in Kenya, where I was surrounded by mud huts and a culture deeply affected by HIV/AIDS, trying to better understand its impact on our world. In addition, I have some truly amazing men in my life who are positive and I see the hardship that they face living with HIV/AIDS and the stigma. Thankfully, there are now better medications and lifesaving treatments, but the stigma is still astoundingly strong, and I would love to somehow help stop the stigma.

SB: How did you hear about Housing Works and our work on behalf of New Yorkers affected by HIV/AIDS and homelessness?

MH: Well I was on the lookout for an organization that not only helps people living with HIV/AIDS and the homeless but also gives them job training skills and the hope to get them on their feet again. I asked around and a buddy of mine mentioned Housing Works. I looked you guys up and fell deeply in love with what you do. I called and spoke to the amazing Elizabeth Butlin, and she gave me some very helpful answers. She mentioned that Housing Works was in extra need of men’s shoes. Immediately I decided that for my birthday, I would combine my favorite childhood game—Gentle Ben—with a fundraiser drive for 300 pairs of shoes and other household items for Housing Works. And that’s how I came up with the name of the drive: GB4Shoes.

SB: Was there one main impetus for the drive, or was it a collection of reasons?

MH: Well, if you want to get to the root of it, my family was very poor growing up. The kindness shown from strangers and loved ones to my family during those difficult times was very impactful, even at a young age. My parents were also amazing examples in always serving others as well. So, the mix of their teachings and generosity I witnessed as a young kid motivated my projects such as the GB4SHOES drive.

SB: What were your friends’ reactions to the fundraiser?

MH: Oh, I was very touched by my friends’ response. I am so fortunate to be surrounded by amazing people who have solid hearts for causes such as this. After I posted the “Shoe Jive 4 Shoe Drive Video” on Youtube, friends old and new from afar contacted me through Facebook or email to donate their old kicks. I even had elementary school teachers contact me to sent shoes my way.

SB: Are shoes still coming in?

MH: Yes, shoes still finding there way here from the West Coast! My poor roommate—every day he would wake up with new boxes of shoes in the living room as they started to overflow out of my room. People have mailed shoes in from all across the US, along with emails of support from all over the world. I also had a few buddies sacrifice time and their car to go around the city picking up donations from all over the five boroughs. In 35 days, we collected over 400 items that were donated to the GB4SHOES Drive, 301 of which were shoes.

SB: Matt, that is so amazing. On behalf of Housing Works and our healing community of people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS, thank you so much. What you’ve done is truly astounding. What future ventures might we expect to see from you?

MH: I am presently working on a potential indie short film project close to my heart about love. And as an artist in this great big city, at the end of the day I just want to continue to strive to be creating and working on art that brings more awareness, open hearts and helps spread the love.

To learn more about how to donate to Housing Works, visit our donations page.

To watch more of Matt’s videos, you can visit his Youtube page.

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