Hope from tragedy

June 30, 2009

Recent graduate Elena Chu with her benefactors, John Behling and Nancy Shaw Behling.

When their son, Matthew, died in 2005 at the age of 42, Nancy Shaw Behling and her husband, John Behling, were overcome with grief. But rather than let it completely consume their lives, the couple found a way to ensure Matthew’s memory would live on despite the tragedy of his untimely departure.

In 2006, they established the Matthew Carl Behling Memorial Scholarship to provide money to graduate students enrolled in Ohio State’s College of Social Work. Since that time, several aspiring social workers have benefited from the Behlings’ gift, and gone on to improve the lives of countless troubled people in need of mental health assistance.

For the 2008-09 academic year, Elena Chu was selected as the recipient of the Behlings’ endowment. She recently graduated with her Master of Social Work degree, and credits the scholarship money with making a huge difference in her college experience. “It was just so amazing when I was first told that I was going to receive this scholarship,” she says. “Just to think that someone so selflessly donated so that I would have more opportunities in school. I felt really good about myself, like, ‘Wow, someone thinks I am deserving of this gift.’ It really meant a lot to me.”

Because the financial assistance she received originated as a way of keeping Matthew Behling’s memory alive, Elena says she is inspired to touch as many other lives as possible through her vocation. “I’ll always remember this experience, and I’ll always remember Matthew,” she says. “I feel like I’m carrying something on.”

Establishing their endowment through the College of Social Work was a natural choice for the Behlings, who have had ties to Ohio State for more than 50 years. They met as social work graduate students in the late 1950s, and were married prior to graduation. John eventually started teaching at the college and is now an emeritus faculty member. The Behlings’ other son, Paul, also has a social work degree from Ohio State.

“Social work students are great people,” says John. “The scholarship is really important to us because that goes directly to helping a student get the training needed to go out and do the kinds of things that we feel are important, mental health in particular. Matthew was afflicted with those issues. We saw him suffer and go through considerable consternation over a long period of time. When he died, we thought this is one way we can help—funding a student.”

Nancy echoes her husbands’ sentiments. “Education is the most important thing,” she says. “It’s money well-spent when you see the students. I don’t think you can go wrong in providing scholarships.”

The Behlings hope Matthew’s memorial fund continues to grow, and that other people will be inspired to help students pay for school. Initiatives such as Ohio State’s Students First, Students Now make it easy for donors to find ways to give. “The more that can be contributed to funding students, the better,” says John. “It’s great satisfaction to both of us to have given this money, and we know it’s being used for a wonderful cause.”

As Elena moves forward in her career, she plans to continue the cycle of giving initiated by the Behling family. “John and Nancy have been an inspiration because they embody the social work values of giving selflessly and compassionately, and really reaching out to help others,” she says. “I hope that one day I’ll be in a position to do the same. I think it’s important to know that when you donate, you’re really impacting someone’s life, in a way that you probably won’t even realize. Someone will be really grateful for that help.”