By Meagan Harkins
At her house in Columbia, S.C., Anne Matthews makes her way upstairs to her home office lined with plaid wallpaper and gazes at the map centered on the wall. Seventy-two pins on the map represent the 72 countries in which she has performed humanitarian and/or educational work: South Korea, Kenya, Peru, Brazil, the Philippines, Ecuador, Argentina, Zambia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, Malaysia, Serbia, Croatia, and many others.
The walls are also lined with numerous accolades, including awards, pictures and mementos, all treasures from her life of performing good works for others: the Distinguished Service Award from the National Business Education Association; the Hall of Fame from Florence County School District 3; the John Robert Gregg Award from McGraw Hill; an Honorary Cheerleader award from the University of South Carolina; the International Service Award for a Polio Free World from Rotary International.
Matthew’s eyes crinkle as she smiles at these time stamps that bring back so many memories. “I look at them and think that I have had a wonderful, wonderful life,” she says. “I’ve had unlimited experiences.” She corrects herself: “Unlimited meaningful experiences.”
Among her many honors: the 2020 Sullivan Award, presented to her by Sullivan Foundation partner school Coker University (formerly Coker College), where she earned her bachelor’s degree in civilization and business education in 1964. She has served on Coker’s Board of Trustees and was awarded the school’s Distinguished Alumni Award. She also provides an annual scholarship and has spoken at Coker’s commencement ceremonies in the past.
Related: The church and the classroom are holy places for Sullivan Award recipient Dr. Ray Penn
Aside from philanthropy, Matthews is passionate about education. “Securing a liberal arts education is a foundation for life,” she says. “I would not give up that liberal arts education for anything.”
After graduating from Coker, Matthews attended Appalachian State University for her MBA and the University of South Carolina, also a Sullivan Foundation partner school, for her doctorate in education. In 1988, Coker awarded her an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.
In her travels around the world raising money for the Rotary Foundation—another one of her passions—Matthews has seen the famous paintings, architectural wonders, literary sites, famous opera houses, and war locations that she once studied in books come to life. But teaching and serving people in need around the world have given her the greatest joy.
A Southern Lady
Thirty-three years of Matthews’ life were devoted to teaching at the high school and technical college level as well as at the University of South Carolina School of Business. She also served a stint as director of the State Department of Education. “I love students, and I love to see them learn and grow,” she says.
A native of South Carolina, she grew up with five brothers. “I learned at an early age how to be a team player and how to work with them,” she says. “I never had a problem. You learn how to negotiate, and I always tried to be a southern lady.”
Her parents taught their children to value kindness and generosity. “I’ve taken that into every role I’ve had,” Matthews says. She preaches the importance of good manners in working toward one’s objectives.
Matthews became involved with humanitarian work by joining Rotary District 7770 in 1989. The first woman admitted into the male-dominated club, she later became the first female governor of their Rotary District and the first female vice president of Rotary International in 2013. “It was quite interesting,” she says, to be a genteel, charming southern woman among so many men.
She has spent the past 30 years on the road and in the air for the Rotary Foundation. “I knew I would go where I was needed,” she says, although she had no idea it would take her to 72 countries. “I have never told anybody ‘no’ when it comes to the Rotary Foundation.”
Related: Rollins College alumnus “Papa Viva” creates safe haven for families impacted by AIDS
“I’ve learned that we all need to have a good dose of tolerance,” she says, reflecting on her travels. “We need to appreciate and value different cultures, even within the U.S. It doesn’t matter where one comes from. What matters is how we learn to deal with and respect one another.”
Similar to the Sullivan Foundation, “service above self” is the Rotarian mantra, a phrase that sparked Matthews’ interest in joining the organization. “I firmly believe that is what my life is about,” she says. “I’ve been so fortunate and so blessed in my life, I believe I need to share with others.”
While many of her trips have been for fundraising purposes, she has visited India three times to vaccinate children against polio. Along with others, she rode a boat through Peru to the Amazon jungle, then walked more than a mile to help build a water well. She has also journeyed five times to the Republic of Ghana in West Africa, which she has adopted as her “second country.”
Matthews and other Rotarians provided the funding for the first modern elementary school in the Tain District of Ghana. Alongside the school, the first designated male and female restrooms were erected. Her group provided books, installed solar panels, placed new desks and chairs, and added computers in the school.
After witnessing women and children in the Tain District walk more than five miles twice daily to retrieve contaminated water, Matthews was determined to help the villagers get access to clean water. During subsequent visits to Ghana, she helped provide funding for medical clinics and 500-plus wells, several of which connected to sanitation systems. The children reacted with overwhelming smiles and bright, joyful eyes to their brand-new school and clean water.
Combating Polio and Hunger
Eradicating polio is a top Rotarian priority, and Matthews has helped raise millions over the years to eliminate this dreadful, crippling disease. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), a partnership led by Rotary International, was started in 1988, and since then more than 2.5 billion children have been immunized, 18 million have been spared disability, and more than 900,000 polio-related deaths have been averted. There are only two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, still struggling with the wild poliovirus, according to Rotary International Advocacy Specialist Kris Tsau.
In addition to wiping out polio worldwide and making clean water and sanitation systems available in developing countries, other Rotary Foundation fundraising efforts focus on promoting literacy, ending poverty and hunger, and providing maternal health care needs to women.
Matthews’ strongest passion, she says, is “wiping hunger off the face of the earth.” She adds, “I just don’t see why we have hungry people when there’s so much plentiful food.”
Related: Alice Lloyd College grads reflect on decades of teaching Kentucky’s youth
She sees food security as a mission that transcends international borders. Donations to the Rotary Foundation and involvement with local food banks are two ways to begin solving the problem, she says. “I think people should be more aware of hunger. Why can’t we do it? We can if we want to, if we’d put our heart and soul into it.”
Matthews is also a board member of both Rise Against Hunger, an international nonprofit headquartered in Raleigh, N.C., and Harvest Hope Food Bank, which feeds up to 2,000 people some days in Columbia, S.C.
“I cannot stand to see people on the road with a sign that states they are hungry,” Matthews says. Despite being advised not to, she gives homeless individuals a dollar or a few quarters each time she sees them at an intersection, in hopes they will buy a sandwich. “I’ve done what I should do,” she says. “Now what they do with the money, that’s between that person and God, not me any longer.”
“I Know I Can Make a Difference”
Nowadays, Matthews’ travels don’t take her far—she’s limited to Zoom meetings due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Just this morning she worked with the Rotary Club of Polokawane in South Africa, supporting an orphanage for blind children. Later this afternoon she will travel to India via Zoom. While she is still confident about the completion of her projects, Matthews misses the cultural exchanges and personal relationships that she has built over the decades.
“People are missing out on the greatest gift, and that is helping other people,” she says. “They miss out on helping those in need when they don’t learn this early in life. I believe we’re put here for a purpose, and that purpose is to make a difference. I really believe that.”
Fortunately, Matthews has a talent for convincing others—even strangers—to do their part. In November 2019, she spoke at a Rotary Club meeting about the work of the Rotary Foundation. “All I did was speak, from a personal standpoint, for about 25 minutes,” she says.
After the meeting, a man approached her and said he was pleased to learn of the Rotary Foundation’s humanitarian work. “I thought he might donate $5,000 or so dollars,” she recalls. “The next week I was called back by that club president. The gentleman wrote a check to the Rotary Foundation for $1 million.”
“That $1 million donation was because I spoke about the good the Foundation does in the world,” she adds. “I am passionate about doing good in the world. Feeding the hungry, providing clean water and sanitation, and eradicating polio—those are things we have to tackle.”
“What I want to do for the rest of my life is to help folks who cannot help themselves,” Matthews concludes. “This might sound selfish, but I know I can make a difference.”