Hillyard Special Ed

Alice Hillyard, far right, poses for a photo with a name plate bearing the name of her late son, Matthew, who had Down syndrome. Hillyard came to Utah State University on Wednesday to receive the name plate and honor USU student Emily Ruiz, center, who is the new recipient of the Matthew David Hillyard Scholarship. Darcie Peterson, who works in the department of special education and rehabilitation at USU, is pictured with Hillyard and Ruiz on the far left.

When Alice Hillyard had her son, Matt, and doctors told her he had Down syndrome, she had never heard of it.

“I was shocked,” Alice said in an interview.

Not even a year old, Matt was in the hospital, facing a major operation. But even in that time of turmoil, Alice and her husband, Logan attorney and state Sen. Lyle Hillyard, decided to give back by establishing a Utah State University scholarship in their son’s name.

On Wednesday, Alice watched as USU recognized an undergraduate as the latest recipient of the Matthew David Hillyard Scholarship. Matt passed away earlier this year.

But school officials also had something for Alice — a copy of the name plate for a room within the Sorenson Legacy Foundation Center for Clinical Excellence, scheduled to open next week. The room is named after Matt and will house the Aggies Elevated program, which gives college-age adults with disabilities the chance to live on campus and earn a certificate from USU.

“I’m overwhelmed with it. You just don’t expect those kind of things,” said Alice, referring to the room named after her son.

She said Matt probably would have attended Aggies Elevated when he graduated from high school.

“I think it would have been very helpful to him,” Alice said. “I don’t know how high-functioning you have to be, but Matt was pretty high- functioning.”

Matt was recognized in Cache Valley and throughout the state for his good-natured personality, attending various community functions or singing karaoke with lawmakers. He even had a USU agricultural facility in Wellsville named after him.

Tim Slocum, head of USU’s department of special education and rehabilitation, noted Matt’s personality in remarks during the awards ceremony on Thursday.

“We were honored, for so many years, that he came and actually gave the award for his scholarship to the recipients,” Slocum said.

Slocum said after Matt’s passing, university officials decided to name a room in the new Clinical Excellence Building after him. And how fitting it would be, he added, that the room was used by Aggies Elevated students. Up until now, Slocum said, Aggies Elevated had “been in a basement, and we’ve begged for space and found little nooks and crannies where we could.”

“I think it’s just so appropriate to have Matt’s name on the room that opens doors for people,” Slocum said. “Because Matt opened doors himself and was able to go places … that few people can, whether they have a disability or not.”

Emily Ruiz, a senior majoring in early childhood special education, never met Matt, but is delighted to receive a scholarship in his name.

“He just seems like he’s made such a legacy here, especially at Utah State, so I’m honored to represent him and be rewarded with that scholarship,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz, who specializes in working with children from newborns to age 5, believes Aggies Elevated students will benefit from a room named after Matt.

“I think it’s wonderful. To see … the opportunity that Utah State gave these people to have an education and now to be able to give them a room, it’s just great,” Ruiz said.

Kevin Opsahl is a staff writer and features editor at The Herald Journal. He can be reached at 435-752-2121 ext. 1016 or by email at kopsahl@hjnews.com