As the chilly October wind whips up the litter at the corner of McGalliard Road and Walnut Street, an alien dances, lighting up the Texas Roadhouse building. Cars honk as they drive by, and children wave their arms out the window to say hello to the mysterious man in an alien costume.
Since 2019, Matthew Peiffer has dressed up in various costumes and danced along McGalliard Road with one goal in mind: to put a smile on everyone’s face.
“You can actually see the difference people are having on people's lives,” Peiffer said, “Whether that be officers on the street telling me that they went to a domestic where the kids were talking about seeing me that day or people reaching out to me … saying, ‘My son lost his baseball game last night. He saw you walking [in a costume along McGalliard] and couldn't stop laughing.’”
With more than 2,000 followers, the Muncie’s Smile Man Facebook page helps families keep track of Peiffer’s whereabouts.
Peiffer did not start the page or come up with his nickname. Bailey Smith, a 19-year-old Muncie resident, created the page in August after she noticed people were continuing to get Peiffer confused with her friend dressing up as the Pokemon character Pickachu. People kept making Facebook posts asking who Peiffer was, Smith said, so she came up with a nickname and Facebook page for everyone to put their pictures together.
“He would make little subtle comments under posts that people made or little jokes,” Smith said. “Then, I found his actual Facebook page, so I started talking to him, and he told me why [he dresses up in costumes].”
Peiffer said he wants his good deed to go further than putting a smile on a child’s face in a passing car’s window. He hopes children who are being abused behind closed doors will see him and “fill the rest of their night with happiness.”
Peiffer said he holds child abuse advocacy close to his heart. After being born to a mother who struggled with drug addiction, Peiffer and his two sisters were adopted in 2000. For 13 years, Peiffer said, he and his sisters were abused until they landed back in the foster care system. He was separated from his sisters and began a two-year journey moving through eight different foster homes.
When Peiffer was 19 years old, he said, his younger sister died by suicide after years of abuse. His sister’s death sparked Peiffer’s motivation to help end child abuse and advocate for children like him and his sisters.
Less than three percent of foster children graduate from a four-year college, according to the National Foster Youth Institute. Peiffer is a 23-year-old social work freshman at Ball State. He said the foster care system isn’t set up for academic success, and his goal is to help change the world of social work for the better.
“It seems like [after] 400 years, [social workers] have all done the same thing — just named it different names and said that it's a brand new idea — but it's not,” Peiffer said. “[Social work is] not really changing anything. We're still in the same spot that we were in years ago.”
Advocacy has been a part of Peiffer’s life since 2014 when he began serving on the Indiana Youth Advisory Board. He saw six different bills passed within the Indiana Youth Advisory Board in the six years he was a member. One he was most proud of was helping children in the foster care system get their driver’s license.
“It used to be by law, the BMV said we had to have a blood relative give us a permit hours,” Peiffer said. “Foster kids — we don't have blood relatives. We can appoint somebody else now.”
While he said he still struggles with school, Peiffer continues to take classes while running his nonprofit organization, A Voice for Kids, to prevent and end child abuse. He began A Voice for Kids in March 2020 when he aged out of being a member of the Indiana Youth Advisory Board.
“It started with volunteering, knocking on doors, making phone calls for the presidential election in 2016, where I was able to build the most of my connections [for A Voice for Kids,]” Peiffer said. “From there, people trusted me. I was riding my bike every day to the headquarters and helping them out whatever way I could. From there, I would just be able to build my connections. It’s all about calling a legislator. I basically just call legislators saying, ‘Hey, I'm a foster kid, I have this idea. Would you be interested in hearing it out?’”
Kevin Planck, executive director at Northwood Manor Senior Living, is a one of A Voice for Kids’ board members. Planck said he has always had a heart for foster care kids needing adoption. He adopted his son, who had been in foster care and abused in six different homes, when he was 6 years old.
After a child homicide case in his hometown of Gas City, Indiana, angered Planck to the point of motivation, Planck’s cousin put him in contact with Peiffer. Planck didn’t want to just be a board member or do a fundraiser, he said, and Peiffer’s organization was a perfect way he could “get his hands dirty” and make a difference.
“I had a lot of hopelessness that nothing could be changed with these kids’ lives,” Planck said. “I thought it was all talk, but through getting hooked up with [A Voice for Kids] and seeing the changes [Peiffer] is making, I realized there are advocates out there. ... I help him out, and it gets me back engaged in the advocacy and the grassroots of taking care of kids and making sure they're protected.”
Planck helped Peiffer turn A Voice for Kids from an advocacy dream to a legal nonprofit. Working with nonprofits for his “entire life,” Planck said, he helped Peiffer complete his 501c and the grants necessary to keep the organization running.
“Matt is still struggling with some of his own upbringing and his nightmare of foster care, and so sometimes he just needs a friend too,” Planck said. “If he's in trouble or if he's feeling overwhelmed or skeptical of things, he'll just call me up, and we talk through things.”
Because U.S. states create their own child abuser lists rather than working together, Peiffer is currently working on a national database for child abusers. Peiffer said this database would be similar to a list of sex offenders people can see around their neighborhood.
Another one of Peiffer’s projects is helping local foster children get their permit hours by recruiting volunteers in the Muncie community to let foster children use their cars to practice their driving skills. He is also working with the Muncie Police Department to speak with new officers about foster children’s experiences.
“Every cycle that the Muncie Police Department hires new officers, they've allowed me to go in and speak to the rookies,” Peiffer said. “I've been pulled over countless times, and as a foster youth, you always look at cops in the bad light that they might be the ones that ripped you away from your parents … If officers were able to step back and learn about our story and where we come from, they might be able to handle those stops a little bit better.”
As Peiffer stands on the corner of McGalliard, letting the wind whip his inflatable alien suit, he holds onto the same motivation he has had since his sister died in 2016. While he still catches himself tearing up talking about his experience in foster care and his sister’s death, he said he is proud of the differences he’s making so foster children don’t have the same experiences he did.
“It's never something you can truly overcome, especially about my younger sister committing suicide,” Peiffer said. “That's probably the hardest thing I ever have to talk about when I give speeches, but it's important because kids are dying, and they're going through trauma for so many years. So, it does get easier with every speech, but I won't say that I'm overcoming 100 percent. It's still rough ... but it's all about at the end of the day trying to think of who this is going to save and who this is going to help.”
Contact Sophie Nulph with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.