Friday, May 20, 2011

Mattie Stepanek: 'Think Gently, Speak Gently, Live Gently'


          Facing the Future
Every journey begins with but a small step. And every day is a chance For a new, small step in the right direction. Just follow your heartsong.  
by Mattie Stepanek

Matthew Joseph Thaddeus Stepanek (July 17, 1990 – June 22, 2004), known as Mattie Stepanek, was anAmerican poet, who had six books of poetry and one book of essays all reach The New York Timesbestsellers list. He became a peace advocate and motivational speaker, and lobbied on Capitol Hill on behalf of peace, people with disabilities, and children with life-threatening conditions.

Stepanek suffered from a rare form of muscular dystrophy, dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy that resulted in his death a month before his 14th birthday. His sister and two brothers also died from the disease during early childhood, and his mother has the adult form, diagnosed only after all four of her children were born.

At the age of three, Stepanek started to write poetry to cope with the death of his older brother. His first five books are: Heartsongs, Journey Through Heartsongs, Hope Through Heartsongs, Celebrate Through Heartsongs and Loving Through Heartsongs. All five works made the New York Times bestsellers list. He wrote that a "'Heartsong' is a person's special gift to be shared with others... or a person's 'reason for being.'" Two additional books were published posthumously; both also were New York Timesbestsellers. One is Reflections of a Peacemaker (Mattie Stepanek's final collection of poetry), and the other is Just Peace: A Message of Hope (a collection of Mattie's peace essays and e-mail correspondence with Former President Jimmy Carter). In 2007, Just Peace was awarded the IPPY Gold Medal for Peacemaker Book of the Year.[citation needed].

In 2002, Stepanek became the Muscular Dystrophy Association National Goodwill Ambassador, due to his national high profile because of his poetry and related appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show,Larry King Live, and Good Morning America. In 2003, Billy Gilman - singer and friend of Mattie's - released an album called Music Through Heartsongs: Songs Based on the Poems of Mattie J.T. Stepanek. The album reached number 15 on the U.S. Top Country chart and number 109 on the US Billboard 200. Stepanek can be heard reciting his poetry on several tracks.

Mattie Stepanek died at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, June 22, 2004, three weeks before his 14th birthday. His funeral was held on June 28, 2004, at Saint Catherine Laboure Roman Catholic Church in Wheaton, Maryland. Nearly 1,350 people attended, including Oprah Winfrey and country singer Billy Gilman. A eulogy was delivered by former President Jimmy Carter,[1]who said

We have known kings and queens, and we've known presidents and prime ministers, but the most extraordinary person whom I have ever known in my life is Mattie Stepanek. His life philosophy was 'Remember to play after every storm!' and his motto was: 'Think Gently, Speak Gently, Live Gently'. He wanted to be remembered as "a poet, a peacemaker, and a philosopher who played".

Shortly after Mattie's death, citizens in his King Farm neighborhood of Rockville, Maryland established the volunteer-run, non-profit Mattie J.T. Stepanek Foundation with the mission of making Mattie's message accessible to everyone. One of the primary goals of the Foundation is to create curricula programs to support teachers in helping students of all ages understand Mattie's concept of Heartsongs, and embrace his "Three Choices for Peace".

In 2005, a two-room "Peace is Possible" exhibit dedication to Mattie's message of hope and peace was opened at the Children's Peace Pavilion in Independence, Missouri. The Pavilion offers a membership program called Peace Champions inspired by his work. Also in 2005, Madison Cross, a good friend of Stepanek, wrote and recorded a song dedicated to him entitled "He Was Just Like Me". The Rosalynn Carter Institute set up the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Intergenerational Caregiving Scholarship, which is given to four individuals each year.

In 2008, the We Are Family Foundation hosted the first annual international Three Dot Dash
"Just Peace Summit" based on the message Mattie offered in his book "Just Peace". Thus far, more than 4 million people worldwide have been directly and positively impacted by the peace projects created by the Global Teen Leaders who have participated in the Just Peace Summit (see for more information). The We Are Family Foundation also annually awards the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Peacemaker Award to an individual who has used their talents and gifts to meet the basic needs of others and promote peace. Recipients who have accepted this honor include Maya Angelou, Quincy Jones, Paul Simon, Deepak Chopra, Desmond and Leah Tutu, and Pastor James Wuye and Imam Mohammad Ashafa (aka Nigeria's "The Imam and The Pastor" peacemaker team).

On October 18, 2008, the 26-acre (110,000 m2) Mattie J.T Stepanek Park in Rockville, Maryland was dedicated. Thousands of people attended that event, including Oprah Winfrey, Nile Rodgers, Billy Gilman, politicians, and others. Pepper Choplin set words from Mattie's final peace speech to music, and a 100-voice choir performed the debut of "Look Up Way Down". Central to the park is the "Peace Garden", which was designed based on the peace imagery Mattie used in his essay book, Just Peace: A Message of Hope. In the Peace Garden there is a life-size bronze statue of Mattie and his service dog, Micah, surrounded by chess tables. Throughout the park are quotes and soundbites from Stepanek. Twice a year, new bricks are added to the 'mosaic of gifts' walkways and concentric circles of support in the Peace Garden; these bricks represent sponsors from more than 20 countries.[citation needed]

In June 2009, the citizens of Carlstadt, New Jersey dedicated their own "Peace Park, in honor of Mattie J.T. Stepanek". Since 2001, children in Carlstadt have begun studying Mattie's poetry and writings in sixth grade. In 2007, the mayor of Carlstadt proclaimed May 22 to be Mattie Stepanek Day, with flags to be flown at half-mast in honor of Mattie's quest for peace. On the same day, the Peace Library in honor of Stepanek was dedicated by the Carlstadt school board.

On November 3, 2009, Messenger: The Legacy of Mattie J.T. Stepanek and Heartsongs was released. The book, written about Mattie by his mother, Jeni, has a foreword by Maya Angelou. The books tells her son's life story, including many details of Mattie's life at home with his mother. Concurrent with the book release (which was also released in audio format, read by Mattie's mom, with Maya Angelou and Mattie's voices as well), the five books of poetry that Mattie audio-recorded prior to his death were re-released in a collection of CDs called "Heartsongs Collection: The Poetry of Mattie J. T. Stepanek" [AUDIOBOOK][

On June 6, 2010, the world premiere of "Heartsongs" took place at Carnegie Hall, NY, featuring Mattie's message and poetry set to music by composer Joseph Martin, and performed by a 200 voice combined Children's Choir (many of them from Houston and one, the Mississippi Girl Choir, from Jackson, MS)and other members of the Distinguished Concerts Singers International under the direction of conductor Stephen Roddy. The event was such an overwhelming success that a repeat performance has been planned for June, 2011 at NY's Lincoln Center, and plans are being made for a CD.

In 2010, the citizens of Lapeer, Michigan will celebrate their fifth annual "World Trade Day" on September 11. (Mattie Stepanek described his vision for "World Trade Day" in his book "Just Peace", as a way of commemorating the tragic events of 9/11 while moving forward.)

Jeni Stepanek, Mattie's mother, continues to work as a motivational speaker, writer, advocate and consultant. She serves as a national vice president for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, a governor of the We Are Family Foundation, and as executive director of the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Foundation.

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