GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Four West Michigan residents were killed Friday, Jan. 11, on the first day of a mission trip to Haiti when a Toyota Landcruiser they were traveling in tumbled off the side of a mountainous road and into a ravine.
The accident was attributed to a brake failure.
The mission trip is an annual trek organized by Holy Spirit Parish in conjunction with the local group Haiti Needs You.
The four who died, Jim and Rita Cwengros, Matt Kutsche and Mary LaPonsie, were remembered at a prayer gathering Saturday night at Holy Spirit Parish. MLive is sharing memories of them as the community mourns their deaths.
From the time Matt Kutsche attended East Grand Rapids High School to the years after he graduated from Grand Valley State University in 2010, Kutsche had a passion for mentoring youth.
In high school, he worked with younger students as part of a youth development program, encouraging them to stay away from drugs and alcohol. At the same time, Kutsche balanced roles on the school’s baseball and football teams.
He went on to study psychology and criminal justice at Grand Valley State University and worked for some time at the Kent County Jail. Kutsche was a Big Brothers Big Sisters mentor. He also helped coach high school football in East Grand Rapids and a middle school basketball team there, his close friend Eric Lessens said on Saturday, Jan. 12, the day after Kutsche's death.
“Matt somehow had this aura around him that would bring people from everywhere around,” Lessens said. “His personality was just electric.”
Lessens was not surprised to learn Kutsche had decided to go to Haiti. He had been on other overseas trips and had a deep-rooted desire to help others in any way he could.
But news of his death on Friday in a tragic mountainside vehicle accident hit hard. Kutsche's father, a doctor, was with him on a missions trip but was in another vehicle in a caravan up the mountain and survives his son.
Related: On church humanitarian trip to Haiti, four from Grand Rapids killed on narrow mountain road
Kutsche had recently became engaged in December and was planning a late summer wedding, Lessens said. He worked as a human resources specialist – helping others – as was his nature – to find jobs.
Joey Nowak, a former sports reporter for The Press and Mlive.com, graduated with Kutsche from East Grand Rapids and recalled time spent playing with him on sports teams there.
Kutsche was selfless and gracious, always looking out for others, he said.
“He showed you the value of having a good friend,” Nowak said.
He shared additional memories in a blog post Saturday, Jan. 12, and wrote of giving a speech with Kutsche at a high school football banquet, to thank the team coaches.
“He was the talent, really, and I just had the notecards. I wrote, but he gave it,” Nowak said. “Unassuming, gracious and in the most Kutsche-esque fashion, almost a sense of yielding despite the fact that it was he who had the floor. I guess that was Kutsche — even if for a short period of time, the floor was his, it was still never about him. And with a smile. Always, always a smile."
Nowak ran into Kutsche from time to time as the two attended different colleges — Nowak at Michigan State University and Kutsche at GVSU.
“It was always a pleasure to see him, it always brightened my day,” Nowak said. Of missions work: “That's the kind of stuff he was destined for.”
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