Peace Bringer Spotlight
Peace Bringer — July 2012
Paula Beckman, Ph.D.
While millions of people learned about Mattie from his speeches and books and television appearances across the years, Dr. Paula Beckman, our Peace Bringer of the Month, first learned about Mattie before he was born!
Paula, a tenured faculty member in the Department of Special Education at the University of Maryland was the founder and director of “Project Assist” – a research endeavor initiated in 1989 to gather information about the support needs of parents who had young children with disabilities. In addition to learning more about what families stated as support needs and preferences, Paula and her Project Assist staff also provided that very support to families, making Paula a ‘peace bringer’ decades ago.
“I had known his older brother, Jamie, and his mother, Jeni, a year before Mattie came along,” Paula said. Jeni was a participant in the very first Project Assist family group. She later became a staff member for the project, and then earned her Master’s and Doctoral degrees in Early Childhood Special Education with Paula as her advisor and mentor.
“During Jeni’s years on staff and as a graduate student, Mattie spent days around my office at the University of Maryland while Jeni home-schooled him and completed her Ph.D.,” Paula said. “From the time he was very young, Mattie’s presence was like a light that made my life, on the days I saw him, a little brighter.”
Paula said that like many others, she was “amazed by the wisdom of a child so young and his commitment to peace. But even more than that, to me, he was a child, and he had fun in the ways that children have fun. He organized wheelchair races in the hallways of recreation centers with other children with disabilities; he hid in my office to fool the ‘paparazzi’ who were doing a television special about his life; he told fortunes using a foam ball wrapped in foil as his crystal; he truly ‘played after every storm’ as he encouraged others to do. Mattie was ‘a lesson’ – about the balance between purpose and fun; about appreciating what you have while you seek what is better. A day does not go by that I do not think of him, and I only hope that his spirit stays with me always.”
In 2000, Paula broadened her work in supporting children and families when she first visited the country of El Salvador, and co-founded International Partners Cassie Stern Memorial (IP). She now serves on the IP Board of Directors, and brings education and peace to countless children and families in the impoverished nation of El Salvador. This is Paula’s description of her experience:
“El Salvador emerged from a brutal, 12 year civil war in 1992. The war left 70,000 people dead and witnessed death squads and the massacre of whole villages. I first went to El Salvador in 2000 and became aware, that for many people in rural areas, poverty, repression and lack of opportunity were the seeds of the civil war. I also met a young girl named Wendy during that trip, who was in an after school program for street children who were at risk for participation in gangs, prostitution and drugs. Wendy was about Mattie’s age, and when I was leaving, she looked at me and said, “You are never coming back, are you?” That moment changed my life and decided there and then to come back. Before I could return, however, tragically, Wendy committed suicide after a series of earthquakes took away her hope for continuing her education. That intensified my commitment to do something more significant – to make sure that other children had hope and opportunity and that their families could provide for their basic needs.
Now, IP works with local Salvadoran communities to empower local leaders and to help them bring educational and economic opportunity to their villages. We bring groups of young people (16 and over) to El Salvador to live and work in rural villages. Groups from the University of Maryland and other colleges have brought study abroad groups to these villages. With these outstanding young people, we have started education centers, constructed roads, started an ecotourism project that has now become a legal cooperative in El Salvador as well as built clinics, preschools, libraries and water projects in rural villages. We also have a large agricultural training project so that local villagers have the opportunity to own their own dairy cow, start a home business selling milk and cheese and create economic opportunity for their families.”
Paula was amazed and thankful to be recognized as a Peace Bringer by Mattie’s Foundation, and is “thrilled that Jeni and the Foundation always keep Mattie’s sweet spirit in front of us all. I just love you for that. I also hope you know how much I love Mattie. He taught me a lot. It has been an honor to watch Mattie’s Foundation come to life. I would love to see the teens that I know in El Salvador become part of Mattie’s organization and his legacy.” She hopes that the teens she works with may perhaps even participate in the Three Dot Dash Just Peace Summit.
“Mattie’s legacy is that he calls us all to something better,” Paula said. “He calls us to peace and he challenges us to live up to a dream that many of us share. It is a challenge that goes beyond borders, beyond politics. It is grounded in innocence and love. Mattie brought that spirit to those of us who were lucky enough to know him. What could be better than that?”
Thank you, Paula,
for being a Peace Bringer.
For more information about International Partners,
please visit www.internationalpartners.org.
A video about Paula’s work with IP
can be viewed at http://vimeo.com/21809939.