Yesterday, we went to an awesome new park with a group of our little (and big) friends. It's not too far from where we live, in one of my friend's neighborhoods. The park is brand-new, with a fully wheelchair-accessible playground (complete with a rubberized surface!), swings for kids of all sizes and abilities, a picnic area, a Bank Shot basketball court where people in wheelchairs and on their feet can play together, tennis courts, and a dog park, as well as walking paths and open fields. It's truly a place where all people can go to have a fun day outside without feeling limited by any challenges they might face.
The coolest part is that it's dedicated to an amazing boy named Mattie Stepanek, whose life was sadly cut short by a rare form of muscular dystrophy. Though he didn't live to see adulthood, Mattie did more to make a positive mark on our world than most people who live to see eighty. Mattie spent his time here spreading a simple message of peace and friendship that only a child's eyes could see or voice could speak, much of which was compiled into several poetry books that he wrote. He inspired so many to live their lives to the fullest while focusing on what was most important, and although he was wise beyond his years, he had a way of sharing his message in a manner that all could understand.
When the park was dedicated this past Saturday, a statue of Mattie in his wheelchair - with his service dog standing at his side - was officially unveiled within a peace garden that's adjacent to the playground. The ceremony was attended by everyone from people in his family, to people who live in the area, to dignitaries and news crews, to Oprah Winfrey, who became a friend of Mattie's several years ago.
His mom, who also has muscular dystrophy, lives in a house across the street from the park. I couldn't stop myself from glancing over there from time to time when we visited the park yesterday, wondering what she thinks of having such an amazing place being named for her beloved son just outside her front door. Being a mother myself, I can only imagine that such a sight is all too bittersweet - a beautiful but painfully constant reminder that her child is no longer here with her.
When we arrived at the park and first went over to look at the statue, I got a bit teary-eyed myself - not because I knew Mattie personally, but because of the effect he has had on my own outlook on life by encouraging everyone to "always play after every storm." Caroline, meanwhile, just noticed that he looked like he was in "Mommy's wheelchair!" and wanted to pet his dog. Then we went off to play with our friends and take in the beautiful day, just as Mattie would have wanted all of us to do. How amazing is it that a simple day at the park could so easily be the most fitting tribute to such a special boy?