Unsung Santa Cruz: Lifelong Watsonville resident — ‘Mr. Volunteer’ — won’t let retirement get in the way
Born and raised in South County, Matt Ryan spent more than 30 years as a firefighter and picked up other roles along the way, from helping power the local Toys for Tots program to community barbecues and giving fellow first responders a willing ear.
Matt Ryan is far more of a doer than a talker — especially if the topic is him.
From the time he was young, one of Santa Cruz County’s most renowned MVVs — most valuable volunteers — saw the importance of helping the community around him. So it’s little surprise that helping others no matter the occasion became his own reflexive norm.
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“My dad and the rest of my family have always been the kind people that worked behind the scenes,” said Ryan. “I myself am really honored that I get to help at the fairgrounds and at the fire auctions, and I’ve done the Farm Bureau opening day barbecue for the last 27 or 28 years.”
Born and raised in Watsonville, Ryan has a special bond with the community and its people. His family has generations of roots in South County.
“My grandmother was one of the first students of Moreland Notre Dame and would board there all year,” he said. “My dad’s family came from Salinas so we have a ranch in Salinas.”
Ryan cites the strong connection among family members as a large reason that he stayed in the area his entire life, along with his undying love for the town of Watsonville.
“We’re really close-knit — we’re Irish Catholics so we have a big, strong family,” he said. “Watsonville is just a great town, too, and I’m honored to work for it.”
Watsonville is just a great town, too, and I’m honored to work for it.
Alongside the work he does in his spare time, Ryan also served the town as a firefighter for more than 30 years. He said his time in the department was a blessing and he found his coworkers inspiring.
“I got to have a real good career and did a lot of stuff,” he said. “I went from firefighter to engineer to captain and met a lot of good mentors there.”
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While fighting fires, Ryan got involved with an organization that might sound familiar: Santa Cruz County Toys for Tots. Along with former Watsonville Fire Chief Don French, a co-founder and longtime colleague of Ryan, he got in on the ground floor. He’s been an integral part of the organization ever since.
“When we started we got to use all the local fire departments as drop-off points and organize the toys, and in our first years we actually got to deliver the toys,” he said. “We’d take Christmas trees and food from food pantries to people too. It’s a really honorable, cool thing to do.”
In typical Matt Ryan fashion, those who know him best say, he does his best to give all the credit to others.
“Many years I’ve been president or whatever the hell they call me, but the real winner back there are our volunteers and [program coordinator] Delilah Valadez,” he said. “She makes miracles happen.”
Valadez, however, sees Ryan as an invaluable resource to the program.
“Matt’s pretty clutch and he’s a jack of all trades,” she said. “And if he can’t do something himself, he’ll find someone to get the job done.”
While Toys for Tots sees its fair share of generous people, Valadez says that Ryan’s warmth and irresistible personality set him apart from the crowd.
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“He just comes through anywhere and everywhere that he’s needed, and his nobility really stands out,” she said. “It just comes from his core — he loves what he does and he’s always there for everyone.”
According to Valadez, Ryan has continued to step up for Toys for Tots and the rest of his community even after he retired from firefighting.
“He hasn’t shied away from his work here and continues to do more even during difficult times,” she said. “He’s even continued to take on more.”
Ryan’s charisma and pleasant demeanor are not just a product of adulthood, either.
Loretta Estrada, a member of the Santa Cruz County Fair board of directors, has known Ryan for 40 years; Ryan and her son were in the same graduating high school class. He has been the same generous guy the entire time she has known him.
“I don’t care when or what it was, whenever you needed someone to do something or cook for an event, he was there,” she said. “It could have been a school function, or an event at the fairgrounds, someone’s memorial, it didn’t matter.”
Estrada added that not only is Ryan always up for anything, but you can count on him to follow through.
He never turns a person down. I don’t know how many other people can say that. He’s one of the most charitable, lovable, likable people out there. He just makes life easy.
“He never turns a person down. I don’t know how many other people can say that,” she said. “He’s one of the most charitable, lovable, likable people out there. He just makes life easy.”
On top of cooking for events, organizing food and toy drives, and performing whatever duties the community has to offer, Ryan has developed a new passion in retirement: raising awareness for the mental health struggles of first responders.
“People need to vent. We have a really hard job and see a lot of really sad, difficult situations,” he said. “It can really take the wind out of your sails.”
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With the stigma surrounding mental health beginning to dissipate, Ryan sees an opportunity to give back to the group that helped shape who he is today.
“First responders and other guys in the department can call me if they’re having problems and we can talk about it,” he said. “It’s important that people have peer support for their mental health. It’s not a dirty word anymore.”
At the end of the day, Ryan just sees himself as a guy doing what he can to help out the town he loves. In his mind, the credit goes to his family, his community, and God.
“I’m not ashamed to have a higher power in my life,” he said. “It keeps me out of trouble.”