Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"Good Morning America" remembers Mattie Stepanek

From ABC's "Good Morning America" Oct. 20. GMA arranged for Mattie to meet his hero, President Jimmy Carter (pictured).

Weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, with America still in the throes of loss and fear, "Good Morning America" discovered a huge gift of solace in a tiny, fragile package -- 11-year-old Mattie Stepanek.

"We all have life storms and when we get the rough times and we recover from them we should celebrate that we got through it," Mattie told "GMA" in 2001. "No matter how bad it may seem there's always something beautiful that you can find."

It was a message based on Mattie's struggles. He had a rare form of muscular dystrophy that tied him to machines and his wheelchair, but his spirit was indomitable as he insisted we learn to play after every storm. His words made him a best-selling poet and national spokesman for peace.

Mattie's hero was former President Carter. "He's a humble peacemaker," Mattie said. "He didn't do a peacekeeping mission and go brag about it."

Mattie's smile made him a bright spot in the "GMA" family. It was on "GMA" that he had his surprise meeting with Carter.

Mattie died in June 2004 at the age of 13.

His muscular dystrophy was only identified when his mother, Jeni Stepanek, was diagnosed with the same disease, which she unknowingly passed on to Mattie and her three other children who also died.

Stepanek is now on a ventilator as her disease progresses, but she holds Mattie's spirit in her heart.

"My arms work less and less, but spiritually I'm doing great," she said. "My son's message is alive and well."

On Saturday, the mayor of Rockville, Md., dedicated the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Park , where kids and adults can play and listen to tapes of Mattie's messages.

Talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who featured Mattie on her show, surprised Stepanek at the park dedication.

"You know what's so powerful about it, here was this little boy and he only lived 13 years and 'Good Morning America' is here, and I am here, and families who loved him and families who didn't even know him are here," Winfrey said.

And Mattie will be there, too, captured in bronze -- a reminder of the energy that boosted the spirits of so many.

"He is here, he's in the grass, in the trees, he's in the air and the clouds, he's in the hearts of everyone who is here," Winfrey said at the park dedication.

The event was a mix of sadness and celebration that only Mattie could evoke.

"I think that it's wonderfully amazing for this little boy's spirit to still be here. It makes me cry," said Lisa Fischer, who attended the ceremony.

He is missed, but his message endures.

"What he said about peace, it really is an attitude," 12-year-old Andrea Manchester said. "You don't just have to think it, but you have to act it, take it into your being, your own personality. It has to be part of you. Once you have that sense of peace it will be all right."