“New Hopes for a New Year” By Keith Landry

2002 January(This was originally published on January 2002)

We all begin 2002 with new hopes for a new year. We hope the months ahead will smooth out our problems and clear us a path to health, happiness, and enlightened hearts. A young man and his mom in Maryland offer all of us hope and inspiration. They never take for granted health, happiness or the brightness that beats within their hearts. Their lives are filled with Heartsongs.

Imagine being a kid and having the talent, intelligence, and capacity to lift up people and to improve the world, and the maturity to want to do it. If you’ve never heard of Mattie Stepanek and his Mom Jeni, you’ve so far missed out on a unique dynamic duo. People who know them cherish them, not just for the way they live, but also for what they have created and shared with others.

You may have seen Mattie on the Oprah Winfrey Show or conversing with Jimmy Carter on Good Morning America. You might have thought, “What a wonderful whiz kid” and quickly flipped your remote with a satisfied feeling. But if you get to know this young advocate of acceptance and voice for peace and the mother who has shaped much of his world, you may walk away inspired or even amazed. We have a rare chance to meet Mattie and his mom and to share some insights behind a young writer’s worldly messages.

They are messages shared through the written and spoken word- messages weaved into verse and rhyme and meaningful lines. Mattie Stepanek has a gift for poetry that many writers seven times his age wish they were lucky enough to call their own. His collections of poems, which are now larger than life, are called Heartsongs.

Mattie explains how he uncovered the word that has become his trademark. “I first came up with the term Heartsong when I was about five years old. I was creating some poetry, and happened to be wearing a sweatshirt with a little music maker inside the fabric. I leaned against something while I was making my poetry, and the music began. I whispered, ‘Mommy, listen, that’s my heartsong.’ And I immediately wrote a poem, called ‘Heartsong,’ that told all about it. A heartsong is something deep inside of each of us. It’s easy to hear when we are young, but we sometimes get too busy or hurt or angry to listen to it as we get older. And sometimes, we lose it. It’s our sense of why we are here. Our purpose. It may be to be a daddy or mommy, or a firefighter or a waiter, or a child with a disability who teaches others about patience and love and acceptance. And even if we forget our heartsong, we can share someone else’s, which may re-awaken our own. That’s why I share mine with everybody.”

Mattie says he doesn’t remember the first poem he ever wrote, but there are other memories, which linger. “I know that all of my early poems were about how I felt after my brother, Jamie, died. Then I began writing about nature and friends, then peace and prayers, and now, I write about anything and everything.”

The eleven year old, Lego-building, Harry Potter-admiring poet, really has the hang of it. Young Stepanek recalls, “I have written thousands of poems, essays, short stories, and short chapter books since I was three years old.

For school contests, my mom and I have bound about a dozen books at home that are unpublished. Right now, I have two published books “Heartsongs” and “Journey Through Heartsong” that are both on New York Times and other Bestseller lists. In April, a third book will be published called “Hope Through Heartsongs”. Two more books will be published as a part of my current contract with Hyperion, and there will be more after that. All of the books with ‘”heartsongs” in the title are part of a series. But there will also be some other books that are not part of the series.”

Mattie says the best place to find his books is Amazon.com and other major websites, which sell books. He also does a fair number of book signings at many bookstores.

Mattie’s mom, Jeni, remembers when she first realized her son has a remarkable way with words. “Shortly after Mattie’s brother, Jamie, died, I became fascinated with Mattie’s imaginative play. He acted out elaborate scenes that focused on the typical stages of grief (shock, denial, anger, bargaining, resolution…). As a writer, myself, I began journaling Mattie’s ‘self-conversations’ thinking that it may provide insights on how preschoolers deal with grief. Mattie began noticing that I would watch him and write while he was playing, so he asked my what I was doing and why.

I explained to him how interesting his words were, and he remarked that they were much like the poetry and meditations we read together each night. Mattie was already reading by age three, so he took an active interest in proofreading and editing my notes, and was soon composing his own work without the need for as much dictation.”

Jeni began reviewing Mattie’s recorded thoughts, and together they’d space them poetically. “Mattie really enjoyed the concept of writing poetry, and would sometimes compose a dozen poems in a single day. Across the years, he has learned to type, and unless he is sick or very tired, would rather do his own work privately, and then share the results later.”

Jeni realized she had little choice but to give her young poet plenty of space to create. “He used to ask me my opinion on his poetry and essays, but now that he’s a ‘pre-teen,’ he would rather I just nod approvingly of his finished work!”

And nodding turned out to be an under-motion and an under-statement, as readers of Mattie’s poems found open places in their hearts for his uplifting messages. Imagine being a mom whose young son is touching other people’s lives through his creativity.

Ms. Stepanek remembers it well. “I was amazed. Mattie had an innocent and uncensored way of speaking from his mind, his heart, and his spirit. When he couldn’t find the perfect word to describe something, he would make one up.

As he has gotten older, his poetry has matured. It’s still beautiful and moving, but it’s different than his earliest works. Often, I am still amazed.”

Oprah Winfrey and Jimmy Carter were also amazed, and both leaders consider Mattie a close friend. Mattie says appearing on Oprah’s show was a wonderful experience. “People look to Oprah for inspiration, which is why one of my wishes was to share my message of hope and peace through her. People often ask me what Oprah was like in person, and I tell them ‘she’s everything we believe and want her to be.’ She’s truly spiritual and generous and in love with people and life. I love being able to call her my friend, not because of her show, but because of her as a human.”

A lot of things changed after that national television appearance. “After I
was on her show, everywhere I went people would say to me, ‘Hey, weren’t you the kid on Oprah?’ At first, it was hard. I felt unworthy of praise and awkward about the attention. But then I got to where I really liked being called the ‘Oprah Kid.’ Think about it… the initials are ‘O.K.’ In spite of everything I have been through in life- my siblings have died, my mom’s in a wheelchair, we had a traumatic divorce, some of my friends have died, I have a very serious and life-threatening condition- well, even with all of that, I am O.K.!”

Things went from O.K. to blissful when Mattie had the chance to talk with his biggest hero. Mattie says Jimmy Carter has been his hero since he was six years old. The young dove explains why. “He is a humble peacemaker and a very friendly, spiritual, and sincerely caring person. I have read lots of books by and about him, and I once made a video where I re-enacted his life. It was called: ‘Jimmy Carter: Peanut Farmer, Politician, Peacemaker… The Perfect Hero.'”

Mattie had always wanted to talk peace with Carter for just fifteen minutes. “When I was in the hospital dying last June, he called me and we talked peace for fifteen minutes. It was wonderful. He answered all of my questions and inspired me to keep living, so I could be like him and bring the hope of peace to others. Then, he kept calling and emailing. That’s what I call a REAL hero. Not just a super hero, but a real one. I wish everyone was blessed like me, to have real life heroes remind them about the good things in life when life seems the hardest.”

Mattie was fulfilled after the phone call, but then fate took another turn. “When GMA surprised me with meeting Jimmy Carter on the air, well… everyone who knows me says they’ve never heard or seen me so quiet. I was in total shock, and awe. I was in the presence of true greatness, and was at a loss for words. Then, we hugged, and I couldn’t stop talking!”

I asked Mattie to let EnabledOnline inside his mind to study his creative methods. He thought it over and responded. ” My poetry comes from my heart and from my life experiences. I write about my feelings, my life, my pain, my happiness, my dreams, my thoughts, and more. Sometimes, a poem just comes to me, and I can’t type fast enough to keep up with my thoughts. Sometimes, an idea comes to me that will become a poem, but I just capture a thought and write the poem later (sometimes months or even years later).”

He offered a specific example of how his works come together. “Sometimes, a poem is a part of a school assignment. Like the poem about the Vietnam War Memorial… that was supposed to be a Veteran’s Day essay assignment that I put off forever and really did NOT want to write. Finally, my teacher (my mom since I am now homeschooled) told me I had to do the assignment because it was overdue. I sat at the computer (not happily) and somehow, produced one of my best poems. Once I got the idea about the ‘wall,’ I couldn’t stop. I sat for an hour staring, and then suddenly wrote the whole poem in ten minutes. Usually, once I finish a poem, it’s done. Only once in a while do I go back and change something.”

Mattie admits there are still times when he has to get used to the idea that his Heartsongs can strike compelling chords that stay in his fans’ souls.
“Lots of people have told me or my mom that my poetry has made a difference in their lives. I have kids and adults writing and emailing to me all the time. Sometimes they have a disability, sometimes they have lost someone they love, sometimes they are interested in peacekeeping, and sometimes they just like my poetry for no particular reason. I’ve had people tell me that hearing me talk or reading my poetry has made their marriage better, or their work place better, or their school work better, or their life better. At first, it was really hard for me to hear all that.”

He was, after all, still a kid. Stepanek remembers, “People kept telling me I was such an inspiration. I didn’t feel worthy of that. I felt like I had
a message and a gift, and that I was only doing what I was put here on earth to do… share the message of peace and hope. But my mom, and Jimmy Carter, and Oprah Winfrey, and some other people who I trust and love, told me that it takes courage to be a messenger. They told me it was okay to be proud, so long as my pride led to humility and not vanity. I get so much mail that it is hard to keep up with it, and because of school, I don’t have time to respond to all of it. But I try to respond as much as I can even if it’s just to say ‘thank you’ for writing or caring.”

Mattie is still humble, but he’s now saddled with responsibility. He’s a pre-teen hero and rhythmic role model to many people. Thankfully, he has his mother’s guiding hand to steer him through it all.

Jeni sums up their relationship. “Mattie and I have always been very close. In many ways we are very much alike, and in other ways, we are very different. We are a source of inspiration for each other, although there are also a few times where we are a source of frustration for each other, too!”

This single mom admits their lives are not always easy. “Logistically, there are many challenges to parenting a child with a disability. And, there are many challenges to being a parent with a disability. Combine the two issues, and it creates even more challenges. I did not choose to have a disability, or to have children with life-threatening disabilities. But I do choose how to go through each day. It’s not always easy to ‘celebrate life’ as I preach. But it is possible. It takes patience and perseverance. My faith and my friends are a wonderful source of support, and Mattie and I work together as a team to get everything done. Even though we sometimes get depressed or angry or scared, we try to focus on ‘how’ rather than ‘why’ when dealing with the difficult times.”

So what about the times ahead? What do Mattie and mom envision for 2002?

Mattie hopes his passion for peace will resound this year. “I wish that each person in the world would spend a little bit of time praying each day this year. Not a prayer for the self, or for some thing. But a prayer for unity, and tolerance, and hope, and peace.”

This young man, who has already accomplished so much, has simple goals for his own life. “For myself, I want more time, to live and to share my message. I hope to publish more books and continue public speaking. My family is my mom and I, and for us, I hope that we can continue to spend time reading and playing together.”

Mattie says he will be an advocate for several organizations in the disability movement this year. In addition to serving as the 2002 National Goodwill Ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, he also participates in advocacy work for Children’s Hospice International and for Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC. “They saved my life!” he points out.

It’s a life he is living to the fullest in 2002. This young messenger, with wisdom far beyond his years, has a few more phrases for our EnabledOnline audience. They are not words weaved into a poem, but they could be a Heartsong all their own. “Thank you for taking the time to listen to my message, and to read my poetry. I love people, and I love life.”


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