Ryan’s Tribute: Supporting families who have lost children | Helping the Helpers

‘Losing a child can effect anybody at any age, and it’s still that same pain,’ Beth Hanzes said. ‘That’s not supposed to happen, you’re not supposed to lose a child’

By: - December 17, 2021 6:30 am

Third-grade students in Jeremy Winkler’s Hatfield Elementary School class donated 3,000 pairs of socks to Ryan’s Tribute for blessing bags and others in need. Pictured in the front are students Callie Solarchick (left) and Antonio Moore. In the back, from left, are Fritz Conaway, nonprofit board president Aaron Hanzes, school Principal Heidi Mears, nonprofit founder Beth Hanzes, Bonnie Conaway and Winkler. The Conaways are Beth Hanzes’ parents, and the grandparents of the late Ryan Hanzes (Uniontown Herald-Standard photo)

By Jennifer Garofalo

UNIONTOWN, Pa. — Through her nonprofit Ryan’s Tribute, Beth Hanzes wants to fulfill a simple mission: “Who can we touch, who can we help, who can we support?”

(Capital-Star file)

The foundation, started in 2019, was formed as a way for Hanzes to keep her son Ryan’s memory alive after his death in a 2017 car crash. He was 24.

“He was a very happy, bubbly son, very easy going, very simple,” Hanzes said. “He didn’t require material things in life. He loved people and animals.”

After his death, she said stories of Ryan’s kindness to others poured out – things like co-workers telling her how he’d take them dinner if they didn’t feel well.

“I guess I didn’t realize how giving he was because it’s second-nature for our family,” she said. “That’s just what we do.”

His smile, his hugs and his distinct wave also left an impression, the South Union Township mother said.

Ryan’s Tribute embodies her son’s kind nature through several projects, Hanzes said, including Comfort Boxes that are sent to families who have lost children, and its Caring at Christmas Campaign, which is currently ongoing.

  • IF YOU WANT TO HELP: To volunteer, reach out to Beth Hanzes through [email protected] To donate, send checks to Ryan’s Tribute to 118 Southwood Drive, Uniontown. The checks should be made out to Ryan’s Tribute. There is also a “donate” button on the website, ryanstribute.org. The nonprofit is also a listed charity through the Amazon Smile program in which the online retailer donates .5% of all eligible purchases to the chosen charity at no additional cost to the customer. For more information, visit smile.amazon.com.

Comfort Boxes include lavender soap and essential oil, a flannel sheets candle (Ryan’s favorite scent), tissues, seeds of remembrance and prayer coins. Families also get to choose whether they would like a memory bear made with their loved one’s clothing, or a piece of jewelry with a photo of their child.

Hanzes stressed that boxes aren’t only for those who have lost young children because parents who have lost adult children also suffer greatly.

“Losing a child can effect anybody at any age, and it’s still that same pain,” Hanzes said. “That’s not supposed to happen, you’re not supposed to lose a child.”

Hanzes said the boxes are meant to help hold a loved one’s memory in their hearts.

In many ways, it’s why she started Ryan’s Tribute – as a way to keep her son’s kindness and generosity alive.

“I try to look for the positive memories. I do the things he’d want me to do. I get up every day and have a purpose,” she said.

Last month, the nonprofit was able to send Comfort Boxes to the families of the 13 U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan. The soldiers died in an attack outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in August.

“Through many channels and chains – it took almost two months – I was able to get all of the addresses of their families,” Hanzes  said.

The project was especially meaningful to her because all of the soldiers were in their 20s, like Ryan was when he died.

Through the Caring at Christmas Campaign, the nonprofit gathers gifts or clothing for children, supplies for pets and items for the area’s homeless population.

From 4 to 8 p.m. this Saturday, Ryan’s Tribute is partnering with Goodie Girls, a Uniontown bakery, for a stuff-the-bus event in Storey Square.

Items needed include new, unwrapped toys and games, electronics, educational items/books, baby items, pet supplies. Items like easy-to-open snacks, bottled water, toothbrushes, toothpaste, handwarmers or gloves can be donated for blessing bags.

There are also donation boxes placed at Third Presbyterian Church, 425 Union St., Uniontown; State Farm Insurance, 37 W. Main St., Uniontown and Sullivan Brothers Coffee Company, 23 N. Beeson Boulevard, Uniontown.

Those boxes will be picked up on Dec. 22.

A third grade class at Hatfield Elementary School dedicated the enter moth of October (they called it Socktober) to collecting socks for Ryan’s Tribute.

In total, the class gathered 3,000 pair for Hanzes to put in the blessing bags. Some were also donated to Children and Youth Services. And through Ellie’s Elf Project, hats and gloves were also donated.

She said she is always awed at how generous people are.

“It’s amazing the people that come together to help others at Christmas,” she said. “I feel like Fayette County gets a bad rap … but it’s the most giving community and county I’ve ever seen. It just warms my heart.”

Ryan’s Tribute is a “nontraditional memorial and bereavement foundation.”

Hanzes explained that her son wasn’t fond of funeral homes, so their family chose to honor him by foregoing that somber tradition. Instead, they celebrated his life.

The family asked people to wear comfortable clothes to the church service. She said they sat in the back row – Ryan’s favorite spot.

Instead of a typical urn for Ryan’s cremation, his friend Mason Zieglar custom made one using valve pan covers from a race car. Ryan was a member of the Mason Ziegler Racing Team. The engraved urn includes Ryan’s photograph and winning flags from Eldora, his favorite racetrack.

After the service, Mason drove a race car with the urn back to the Hanzes’ home, a procession of beeping cars following.

The family set up tents for friends and family to have a day to celebrate Ryan.

“(Funerals) don’t have to be how they were for hundreds of years. That’s not a rule,” Hanzes said. “We did what he would like and what he would think was cool.”

Someone suggested to her that she share her story, and use it as a way to help others. Family, friends and volunteers helped her get the nonprofit started, holding one major fundraiser each year, and other smaller ones.

At one of those fundraisers, Hanzes said she looked out into the crowd and saw three families who had lost children sitting together. She knew it must’ve been difficult for them – the pain never goes away – but she also knew it must be healing to share grief with those who understand.

“I thought, what I’m doing is working,” she said.

While Ryan’s Tribute focuses mostly on local families, she said her goal is to reach into neighboring counties, and eventually across the country.

Doing so helps her, she said, because she’s able to continue to spread the love her son showed so many others in his life.

“Long-term, only really famous people you remember the names of,” Hanzes said. “It would be great if his name was remembered because of how many people we helped over the years.”

Anyone who has lost a child or who knows someone who has can reach out to Hanzes at [email protected] to receive a Comfort Box.

Hanzes said she’s always happy for volunteers. In the near term, she said they could help sort gifts that have come in through the Christmas campaign. They are also welcome to help work at fundraisers, solicit donations, or help with social media outreach.

Jennifer Garofalo is the managing editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. Readers may email her at  [email protected] Helping the Helpers is a cooperative effort between the Pennsylvania Capital-Star and the Uniontown Herald-Standard.

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