A 2004 Elizabethtown Area High School graduate and an April graduate of Eastern Mennonite University drowned in Costa Rica on Tuesday while on a mission trip.
Matt Garber, 22, was swimming with a group of young people in a cove that was not known to be dangerous. A riptide apparently caught several swimmers. All but Garber returned safely to shore, according to Eastern Mennonite's Web site.
Garber was the son of Todd and Deb Garber of Elizabethtown. He had an older brother, Justin, and younger siblings, Bradley and Janelle.
Deb Garber said her son went to Costa Rica last summer through an EMU cross-cultural program. While there, he met a missionary family whom he contacted again to assist them in their work this summer.
"He worked on their farm and helped with their ministry to reach out to local Costa Ricans," she said.
On Tuesday, he went with the family to spend a day at the beach, she said. The family had gone out to the water earlier and had come back fine, but on their second trip, the water rose quickly.
"That's when the riptide took them out. It was a very, very strong riptide," she said.
One of the boys that was out with Garber almost drowned, but was ultimately rescued, she said. Her son was not a strong swimmer, and he was not one to take risks, she said.
"He was very careful. He would not have gone out where there was even the possibility of it happening," she said.
What comforts her is that "Matthew loved what he was doing. He loved Costa Rica. He was somewhere he loved and was having a good time this summer" Deb Garber said.
"Matt was a fine young man who loved the Lord and was loved by all. It's a great loss," Garber's pastor, the Rev. Fred Garber of Bossler Mennonite Church in Elizabethtown, said.
Braydon P. Hoover, a 2007 Elizabethtown graduate and a sophomore at EMU, said, "Matt Robert Garber was my best friend. He was the kind of person who lit up the room with his brilliant smile. His passion for music has enlivened so many around campus, and his love for God was prevalent in everything he did.
"He was my biggest role model, my inspiration, and my hero. I looked - and still look - up to him. Because he was so in-tune with the personalities of other people, he was always able to tell if I was having a rough day or if something was bothering me, and he always was there to lend a helping hand or simply take the time to listen."
EMU's vice president for student life, Ken L. Nafziger, said, "From time to time, one who could be considered the 'model EMU student' comes along. Consider a young man who, as an expression of his Christian faith, is prone to service, committed to community, loves to sing, makes friends with ease and is kind, caring and scholarly, and you have Matthew Garber."
Garber graduated with honors from EMU in Harrisonburg, Va., on April 27, with a bachelor of science degree in nursing and a minor in Bible and religion. He was among a select group of 10 graduating seniors honored with the annual "Cords of Distinction" recognition. The students were selected for their "significant and verifiable impact" on the university campus and beyond.
Garber planned to begin work in the emergency room at Lancaster General Hospital on Aug. 18. He had completed an externship in LGH's emergency department last summer. While in high school, he volunteered at Hershey Medical Center.
"He was such a nice kid. I was so looking forward to him starting here," Jolyne Barnett, nurse manager of LGH's emergency department, said.
At EMU's 2008 pinning ceremony for nursing graduates, Garber reflected on his journey to becoming a nurse.
Although he started as a biology/pre-med major, by the end of the first year, he knew it wasn't for him and talked with his adviser.
"As I met with (my adviser) that day, I distinctly remember what he said," Garber said. "He said, 'The disconnect you are feeling inside is not insignificant. Pay attention to it. Perhaps this is God speaking.' It kind of reminded me of Eli's response to Samuel.
"In essence, (my adviser) was telling me to say 'speak Lord, for your servant is listening.' Well, the Lord spoke. I ended up switching to nursing. … I was being called to minister to the sick, care for the dying, offer healing to the broken and hope to the distraught. Nursing was where God was calling me."
Heather Keim, a 2007 EMU graduate and a nurse at Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Harrisonburg, Va., said Garber was "very compassionate and caring about the people he took care of (in his clinicals). I was very impressed and remember thinking, 'He is going to make a wonderful nurse.' He just had that special touch with patients. He also was such a presence, in health care and among the students at EMU. He was a great speaker and absolutely hilarious."
Karra Black, a 2008 EMU graduate and a 2004 Lancaster Mennonite School graduate, said, "Matt was an incredibly dedicated student who wanted to get everything right, because he knew that what he was learning would some day impact the patients he wanted to help."
Michael Charles, a senior at EMU and a 2005 LMH graduate, said, "You couldn't find a more authentically kind, caring person. He worked hard at his studies and was a deeply committed Christian. He was passionately involved in the Mennonite Church and served as a role model for everyone he encountered."
Garber sang with EMU's select Chamber Singers for four years as well as the university's touring choir. He frequently planned and led student worship and was involved with the Young People's Christian Association, serving as chairman of the Y-Church division, a ministry that pairs college students with churches in the community.
He also served as a community adviser in campus residence halls for three years and completed a summer internship in the Ministry Inquiry Program at Plains Mennonite Church, Lansdale.
While at Elizabethtown, Garber served on student council for four years and as secretary for his last two years there. In his senior year, he served as secretary for the National Honor Society.
Garber relished his starring roles in high school musicals. He portrayed the scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz," Professor Harold Hill in "The Music Man," Motel the tailor in "Fiddler on the Roof" and Cornelius Hackl in "Hello Dolly!" As a seventh-grader, Garber appeared in his first high school musical in the chorus of "Oliver."
Garber was a four-year veteran of the school chorus, show choir and concert choir. A tenor, he also sang in county, regional and district choruses.
For two years, Garber played tuba with Elizabethtown's marching band. He also played the piano at his home church and led congregational singing.
Lindsey Grosh, a 2006 LMH graduate and a junior at EMU, said Garber "was amazing (as a pianist). He could improvise with any songs and had a wonderful voice to accompany his piano playing."
Grosh said he was "so funny, quick-witted and had a positive outlook on life - the kind of person who just made you feel good when you were around him. He will be sorely missed at EMU. It's a shame that such a fine young man was taken at an early age. God is lucky to have Matt up there with him."
Although funeral arrangements are pending, Eastern Mennonite set up a Web page for reflections about Garber. Anyone wishing to leave a message should go to emu.edu/blog/reflections/ma....
Intelligencer Journal staff writer Stephanie Weaver contributed to this report.