Peace Seeker Spotlight
Peace Seekers — August/September 2012
Jim “JJ” Jackson and
“Bubba” Bert Mentrassi
“Bubba” Bert Mentrassi (L) and
Jim “JJ” Jackson (L) with Mattie, 2002
Back in the mid-1990s, two firefighters – Jim “JJ” Jackson from Mississauga, Ontario and “Bubba” Bert Mentrassi from Greenburgh, New York – met a little boy in Maryland during the opening ceremony of a softball tournament. The little boy, 5-year-old Mattie Stepanek, was serving as a Goodwill Ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He was tethered to a tank of oxygen in a cart on wheels; he mentioned during his opening ceremony remarks that his two brothers and one sister had died from the same neuromuscular disease that was weakening his body; he pointed out his mom who had recently started relying on a wheelchair because it turned out she, too, had been diagnosed with this devastating condition; and, he shared poetry he had written about “celebrating our Heartsong, our reason for being, with other people, in a way that helps them celebrate their Heartsong and reason for being, too.”
JJ, Bert, and more than a thousand other fire fighters attending the annual fundraiser event that supports MDA sat in silence. Some shook their heads in sadness. Some had tears in their eyes. All were inspired, amazed at the eloquence and passion with which this little kid spoke. And then, the opening ceremony concluded, and the games began, and that same little boy was racing from field to field, cheering and chanting, wearing team t-shirts that dragged the ground, dancing in the pavilion, selling his soon to become infamous “Luck for a Buck” inspirational quotes, launching water balloons, and joining in all sorts of firefighter pranks and shenanigans.
“We fell in love with him,” Bert said. “We fell in love with him, with his message, with his spirit, and with the cause. Because of Mattie, we began to get to know more than ‘what the cause supports,’ but ‘who are the people this disease affects’ on a personal level.” That awareness led to vows of ongoing support for the cause, and a close bond between Mattie, Bert, JJ, and thousands and thousands of members of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).
“Mattie had a direct effect on me, and my desire to make a difference for others by supporting MDA,” Bert said. “When I first met him, I knew it was the beginning of a special friendship. He had this amazing outlook on life. Even when things were tough for him, when he was lying near death in a hospital bed, or facing any challenge, Mattie somehow saw the good in others, and the good in life. He made me think about my own attitude during tough times, and how I can look for the good stuff.”
In the 17 years since Bert met Mattie, he has followed through on his vow to seek peace, and to do what he can so that those affected by neuromuscular disease can seek peace, too. He and his fellow Greenburgh Firefighters hold two “Fill the Boot” drives a year and raise about $25,000 annually for MDA.
JJ shared his “Mattie story” in a recent letter:
About 30 years ago, I was in a time in my life where I had to make some big decisions. My aspirations of becoming a veterinarian and helping animals were becoming more of a long shot, than that of a goal in life. Scholastic marks were keeping me from this dream. (I got a little lazy, focusing more on sports and anything else that would hinder success). So, I had to decide on a different dream to pursue as a career. Still wanting to help others, I decided to focus on people and shift my efforts to becoming a firefighter. Knowing that firefighters spend countless hours, not only at work, but also away from the fire house, actually appealed to me as a commitment that was worth making.
Fast forward a few years. I had become a firefighter in Mississauga, Ontario. As is the tradition with firefighters across North America, I decided to help raise money for countless charities, including the Muscular Dystrophy Association. My career as a firefighter was off to a great start – exciting and fulfilling at work, hours of work with charities, not to mention a lot of fun with those that I worked with. As for the fun part, a softball tournament in Prince George’s County Maryland had been attended by our department for several years, and it was my turn to join in.
Fast forward again. After several years as a tournament veteran (well maybe only 5 or 6, but it seemed a lot at the time), a chance meeting at the tournament forever changed my life. Mattie Stepanek was a boisterous, outgoing, fun-loving 5-year-old attending the tournament. We had a chat on a couple of occasions during that first tournament weekend, and realized we enjoyed being around each other during the festivities. We made a pact to stay in touch, and to look for each other at the next year’s tournament. This turned into a ritual of not only hanging out during the event, but also getting to know each other and share many special moments talking. We spent time together, not only at the park, but over the phone between tournaments.
Mattie’s personality and determination to not only make the best of his life, but to do the best for the lives of others, inspired pretty much everyone who ever met him. Mattie had several fire departments that became fast and special friends, Mississauga, Ontario, Greenburgh, New York, and Yonkers, New York became staples as part of his life. Time spent with Mattie made me realize that I had made a wise decision years ago, to pursue firefighting, because otherwise we may not have met.
Many firefighters are held in high regard to many people in the public. Yet, when I look back, knowing Mattie and spending countless hours with him, I consider myself someone who has been helped, and blessed by the humblest person I have met. Mattie and I laughed together too many times to count. We cried together just as many. He would also ask me after many of his speeches, “Did I make you cry, JJ ?” with a smirk on his face… he knew he did. I always did.
Mattie’s commitment to finding a cure for neuromuscular disease, and for helping improve the quality of life for those diagnosed with it, was unmatched. But his dedication to himself and to the rest of the world as a peacekeeper could not have ever been greater. Mattie was the most honest person I have ever met. He made me realize that helping others does not just include showing up to physically be there for someone. Commitment of the mind, soul, and spirit to the betterment of others, and peace in the world, is is not just something people should say – it is something they must believe.
When my first son was born, his middle name was designated as Matthew long before the day arrived. He began a long journey of forever hearing stories about the peacekeeper boy he was named after. Now, both of my sons continue to hear about our beliefs, and how peace should be, can be, a way of life. My older son, the one who carries Mattie’s name, was asked several months ago what he thinks about peace throughout the world. He replied, “What’s there to think about, doesn’t everyone want peace?” Oh, an 8-year-old – so naive, yet so wise. I hope a little bit of that thought process stays with him forever. I think Mattie would be happy with that. I Love You Mattie (and you too, Jeni). – JJ.”
These feelings of love, respect, and support were mutual. Across the years, Mattie’s friendship with “Bubba and JJ” helped him cope with challenges and celebrate life in many ways. During some of the most difficult financial years, they helped make sure Mattie had “fun stuff” to open on his birthday and on Christmas. When platelet and blood transfusions offered Mattie a couple of extra years of life, they were among the countless fire fighters who rolled up their sleeves to donate in Mattie’s name. When Oprah Winfrey invited Mattie on her television show for the first time, there sat JJ and Bert – in the audience, and yes, both of them crying with joy, and appreciation for so many lessons and truths in life. And, when Jeni Stepanek released Mattie’s biography, “Messenger,” five years after he died, Bert was there in the Good Morning America studio (along with dozens firefighters from Greenburgh, who were joined by Mattie’s buddies from nearby Yonkers Fire Department) – supporting Jeni, and celebrating Mattie’s life and legacy.
When Mattie died in 2004, Bert and JJ rode on the back ledge of the fire truck that carried Mattie’s casket. “It was really hard for us to go with Mattie on his last ride,” JJ said. “But doing what is good, what is meaningful, is not always easy. That’s what Mattie taught us about peace – it’s not always easy to look for it, to believe that it’s possible when we’re hurting or when there’s some conflict (or ‘storm’ as Mattie would say)… it’s not always easy, but it is always a good thing.”
“Mattie always considered firefighters his heroes,” Bert said, “but the real hero is Mattie.”
“We miss him,” JJ said, “but we carry on his spirit, his enthusiasm for life, and all the lessons we learned from him.”
Today, Bert and JJ continue to travel each year from New York and Ontario to participate in the annual IAFF/MDA Softball Tournament in Maryland. They toast Mattie, sell his Luck for a Buck quotes, and launch a few water balloons in his honor, while raising funds that bring hope and peace to children like Mattie. During the long weekend, they make time to visit the cemetery where he is buried and then spend a bit of time with his statue in Mattie’s Peace Garden. And through it all, they wear t-shirts sporting their team name and inspiration: “Mattie’s Boys.”
Thank you, JJ and Bert,
for being Peace Seekers.
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