BILLINGS — A trip to T.J. Maxx or the Dollar Tree on Central Avenue and you’ll likely be greeted by Mathew Saunders.
“You have the most beautiful day,” Saunders says to people as they walk by and leave the stores.
“When I was in second grade, I always done the same thing I’m doing right now, is saying hi to people,” Saunders said.
A heartfelt greeting for each customer - it was just a matter of time until the two stores took notice.
“Before Mat worked here, he would just come and help all of the time and so we just thought, well, you might as well apply, and work here, get paid,” said Jennifer Frazier, one of his managers.
The 29-year-old takes pride in his work. “If somebody is really kind, it puts me in a good mood,” Saunders said.
But that mood can quickly get crushed.
“A lot of the time I feel like I am misunderstood because I have a disability,” he said.
The Special Olympics athlete has cognitive delays, processing disorder, and slight autism.
“I just tell them, like, hey look, I’m special needs and I don’t mean to come on strong,” Saunders said.
Sometimes mistaken as homeless, that's a portion of the population he likes to help. “I took care of the homeless people, I fed them, I bought them food and stuff,” he said.
“I’ve seen him come buy a drink for homeless people out here,” Fraizer said about Saunders.
Working two jobs and living in his own apartment, it’s a misunderstanding that hurts Saunders emotionally.
But through it all, kindness prevails.
“He talks to me a lot, and a lot of times he talks about how he gets bullied, and how people aren’t very nice to him,” said Mary Pust, one of Mathew’s friends.
Mary met Mathew the way many others have come to know him. “I’ve seen him around for the last few years and I always see him walking so one day he came over and said, 'Hey, I’m Mathew,' and I said, 'Hey, I’m Mary. It’s nice to meet you.'”
Determined to help others understand, Mathew and Mary teamed up. With the help of a neighbor, Mathew had a shirt made that reads: "I am special needs, I am autistic, I am NOT homeless, Sorry for being misunderstood."
“Maybe that will help people to understand me more,” Saunders said while looking down at his shirt.
It didn’t stop there. He asked Mary to help him create a social media post. “I was surprised at how quickly it took off, and how recognizable he is. I feel like almost everybody knows him or has seen him,” Pust said.
The post to the Billings Classifieds Facebook group gathered 141 courteous comments and more than 1,200 likes.
This time, the people showed up for Mathew the way he shows up for them.
“I think we just need to start talking to one another and helping one another and being there for each other because I think that’s what community is all about and he definitely portrays that,” Pust said.