Sometimes looking at the world around me, I get overwhelmed, frightened and feel hopeless. We as a global community are more connected to each other than ever before, but we're also more aware of the horrors hiding in the corners. Sometimes I wonder what I can do to make this world a better place and feel so helpless... I'm just one person. And I think that's where people like Jeni come in. Because life can seem that much brighter from a smile, from a small act of kindness. If we truly open our hearts to each other and allow our individual Heartsongs, our pieces of the mosaic, to touch those around us, I think that peace is possible. Thank you Jeni for being such a beautiful light in the world, and for showing us that peace can be as simple as a game of chess and a cup of tea. - Slater Jewell Kemker

Dr. Jeni Stepanek

by Slater Jewell-Kemker

"Peace is possible... it can begin simply, over a game of chess and a cup of tea."- Mattie J.T. Stepanek
  A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials, heavy and sudden, fall upon us; when adversity takes the place of prosperity; when friends who rejoice with us in our sunshine, desert us when troubles thicken around us, still will she cling to us, and endeavor by her kind precepts and counsels to dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return to our hearts. - Washington Irving

A few months ago I met Jeni "Mama Peace" Stepanek for the first time. I was struck immediately by the warmth, kindness and acceptance emanating from her, even though we didn't know each other, and by the way she moved through the world around her with a smile.


Jeni Stepanek is better known as Mattie J.T. Stepanek's Mom. Mattie was a young boy poet-philosopher who said he wanted to be remembered for having played after every storm.  Mattie believed that peace is possible and shared his message of hope, peace, love, and a just world through his poetry, "Heartsongs". Mattie barely lived half a life in human years, passing away in 2004 at the age of 13 after a lifelong struggle with muscular dystrophy, but he touched and inspired millions of people  with his open heart and continues to be a shining light in the world.


Jeni Stepanek could easily have chosen to live a life shut off from the world. She's lived through great physical and emotional pain, the loss of all four children, and the ongoing trials of living disabled. But this does not define who she is. Jeni is one of the most beautiful people I've ever met, with a heart as big as a house, and a spirit that continues to share, and give, and connect despite life's hurdles.


This spring I was honored to be a youth delegate, a "Global Teen Leader", at the We Are Family Foundation's Just Peace Summit in New York City. I was one of thirty young people chosen from around the world who lived and worked with the goal of bringing peace to the world by first addressing human being's basic needs. This is where I met Jeni, one of the guiding forces behind the summit.  In the organizers' search for "The Next Mattie," they brought together projects that ranged from the environment and climate change, to human rights, bullying and gender equality. We're used to immersing ourselves a lot in what's wrong with the world, but here was an opportunity to live and learn and grow in what was right with it and live in the possibility of peace and acceptance.  And something else happened.  At the end of the summit I realized I had a new hero... Jeni Stepanek.


I was able to speak with Jeni recently and asked her a few questions for this story.

Jeni Stepanek and the 2012 Global Teen Leaders. (Photo: Marc Birnbach)
Jeni Stepanek and the 2012 Global Teen Leaders. (Photo: Marc Birnbach)

Could you tell me a little bit about the Just Peace Summit? How it started, and your thoughts about it?


In 2002, Nancy Hunt and Nile Rodgers reached out to Mattie, because they wanted to launch the We Are Family Foundation. They needed a spokesperson and there's Mattie, who right around that time was in an international spotlight. That was in the first twelve months of the world knowing about his message, it was six months after the first Oprah Show. They reached out to Mattie. Mattie loved what they were doing, he fully supported it, and said "Absolutely, I'll give a speech, I'll accept your award..." he didn't do it for the award mind you, it was that it was a reason to have an event, by having the first Peacemaker of the Year Award. Mattie fully supported Nile in launching his vision of "peace is possible". Mattie had Mosaic of Gifts, Nile had We Are Family. 


Mattie died two years later, and Nile and Nancy said "We will not let Mattie's Vision of a world at peace physically die with his body, we will find a way to take this mosaic vision forward through our work." We made a promise to Mattie that we'd take his vision of Mosaics and a Just Peace forward. But Nancy's the one that said "Let's find more Matties". To find people who peace matters to, and they're using whatever gifts they have to make peace, and she focused on what Mattie had written in the Just Peace book which is to focus on addressing people's basic needs (water, shelter, food, education, etc). So that's how it began.


There are now 117 young people in the world that I know if they become a President, or Prime Minister, or a King or Politician, or an Ambassador, or whatever, they will not declare war. They will not resort to violence to resolve conflict. They will engage in conflict, they will disagree, but I feel very confident that those 117 teens that have come through our Just Peace program will reflect on an I AM statement, will reflect on their three choices for peace ,and will understand that peace is not a project. It's a way of living and being in every moment of every day, and they will be a different person, and our world will then be a different world  because of that. The more people each of you touch, the more that reality grows in our world, and that's why I say peace is possible. We just need to make peace the news. We  need to make peace so sensational that is what is at the top of the headline rather than the fluff that's included, if they have an extra five minutes because news was slow today. That's my goal, is to make peace news.


I tell Lauren and Nancy, "One of these years Mama Peace will be Grandma Peace sitting on the front porch and one of you all will be taking Mattie's Message forward. You'll take what he said and shape it in the way that seems natural coming from you." And that's what I do, I take what Mattie said and give it the Mama Peace touch. 


You don't have to be a Global Teen Leader to make peace a priority. I envision all of you are going to grow up and very few of you will be "peacemakers". Your peace projects will end, but that does that mean that peace is no longer possible? Does that mean that all the things that you've learned about balancing choices and rebuilding the mosaic and kindness- those things I would hope become a part of your day job. Become a part of your family life. Become a part of who you are when you're sitting on your front porch and 83 years old and watching the world go by.

Jeni "Beach Philosopher" with Micah
Jeni "Beach Philosopher" with Micah


I hear you say a lot that you'd like to be a beach chair philosopher. Could you tell us about that?


Beach chair philosopher: think about it. You sit by the ocean, you think deep thoughts, you reflect on the things that matter, and then you go back to the real world and you share what you've discovered through stories and photos and art. You share about the things that matter, to try to inspire other people to think about the things that matter. 


I think if we each made reflecting on what matters a part of our daily life, it would make life easier to move through. Whether the ocean is symbolic or we're really sitting at the ocean's edge, I think it would be easier to get through the waves of challenge that we face. The role of a beach chair philosopher is to keep people anchored to why life is worthy. 






Since I've known you, you've brought up the idea and the concept of being part of a greater mosaic.  Can you explain?


The Mosaic was Mattie's vision, it's understanding the world as a mosaic of gifts. You look at every person, past present and future. Mattie's not talking about today's world, he's talking about pieces of the mosaic from 2,000 years ago, and people in the Holocaust to people who have been villains and victims. Everybody's a part of the mosaic whether you like it or not. We have existed, we do exist, we will exist, there you are. Do we want this mosaic scattered, and not coming together with some collective good message, or do we want to gather those pieces? Mattie said we can begin to work together and gather those pieces, and that message can be different, that mosaic can be shifted into either hope or peace... that our collective message could be one of hope, or peace or of life or something good. Because the world is filled with good people. He believed everybody comes into the world good. People  don't always make good choices, but people are (essentially) good.


It's always difficult looking at the greater world and seeing how much suffering and misunderstanding and hatred there is in it... Do you think that acceptance and peace on that grand scale is possible? 


MY answer is YES, absolutely yes, Peace Is Possible. Peace is even probable if we can get to everybody, particularly children, and teenagers. The older we get the more we take our attitudes and they become like stone. I think an attitude can  always change, you can be 83 and change an attitude, but it's harder, it's like a habit. That's why I share the three choices for peace: make it an attitude, make it a habit, make it a reality, which means learning about your neighbor. 


It's really hard to be a peace bringer, to make peace a reality if you're an angry person. If you are not a person that at your core wants peace, then you're not a person whose really going to be able to bring peace to our neighbors. We have to want peace, and then we have to become peaceful people. When I get angry, and I do, everybody does, I've a right to be angry, and anger is a feeling. But what do I have a right to say to someone else in expressing that anger, or do to someone else in expressing that anger? How can you still be a peacemaker and express your anger, your disappointment, your frustration?


How do we make peace a part of everyday life? People who are doing films,  and people who are dancing, and chefs and parents and school teachers, whatever your job is, you can't take on one more thing. So, why would a teacher add peace to a curriculum when you're already stressed out over state standards and testing and getting the homework graded? We need to find a way to make peace, just simply, how we think. How we speak with each other, and how we learn about other people, other than are you black or white or yellow or purple or tie-dye or whatever. What we learn about others... that leads to connections. 


That's where education comes in. If we do not know about our neighbors, if we want to help people medically but we have an ethnocentric view of medicine, we can't help our neighbors around the world. Education is crucial to that third choice of bringing peace to others. Education doesn't necessarily mean a PHD, but it means becoming aware of people. Don't just read the features section of your local newspaper and skip to the comics and the horoscope. I'm embarrassed that the Washington Post world news is buried deep. Unless it's a disaster in the world what I learn about my world is on page A25 and it's just little tiny things. That's unfortunate.

Jeni and her son Mattie (
Jeni and her son Mattie (

Jeni was already on the path to getting her PhD before she got married and started having children.  Her first doctoral program was in clinical psychology, nothing to do with peace, or so she thought. It had to do with neglected children who had been abused at home and who patterns of research showed could potentially become bullies and worse as adults. So ultimately, those who destroy peace. But when her children became very ill and she could not do her job well, she withdrew from the program. It is now many years later and she is now Dr. Stepanek.  So why was it important to go back and get her PhD?


Education to me is not the letters after your name, but getting as much education as you are capable of. Knowing your  own potential, and knowing what you can do for the world. I knew that I had the capability of studying at the doctoral level, and I wanted to do that. Am I using my PhD? No. I don't have a single job that really necessitates that. Am I proud of it? Absolutely. Would I like a job that uses it? Yes. I think it does give me a little credibility to be used as Dr. Stepanek, rather than Ms. Stepanek. I do think it carries  a little bit of weight, and maybe people will listen more.  But what I have learned is that the goals that we set, and train for and seek and pursue, are not always the things that matter most. It's the lessons along the way, and I've become Mama Peace and it has nothing to do with my academic programs, although I'm using peace in what I'm doing with my PhD.


If you had the attention of the world for five minutes, what would you do or say?


Nile Rodgers says we are family, and Mattie Stepanek says we are a mosaic of gifts, and I'd want to talk about what that means to us. I'd wanna talk about the choices that we have to make, and really call people to own their choices. My message would be that hope is real, peace is possible, life is worthy, to make that your choice. I cannot stop Joseph Kony from what's he doing, I cannot save every child that's going to die of AIDS, I cannot stop political leaders who are making choices to declare an unjust war, or violate the rights and needs of citizens in a particular class or country. I cannot save the world. But I CAN choose to think my own thoughts, I CAN choose what I think about other people, and I CAN choose to stop saying "What can I do because..." I need to shift it to say "What CAN I do because?" Maybe it's giving a dollar here or there, maybe it's just talking to someone, maybe it's simply smiling at somebody on the street. Peace starts with me, peace has to begin with me being okay with who I am, but once you've got that you need to start thinking about your world. I do believe that peace is possible, but I believe that it necessitates people owning their choices, owning their own I AM statement, and shifting the focus from what others are or are not doing, to what WE are doing, what I am or am not doing.


I could say my children are dead and it hurts to get out of bed every morning, and I'm in pain when I wake up, I'm not gonna walk today and I still don't have a steady job. Why am I going to go on today? Or I could say, Alright, those are my realities, what difference can I make today? I want to spend time trying to be a catalyst for people to think that way and to think about "Okay, my piece in the mosaic is going to touch other pieces, do I want it touch with a jab, or do I want kindness?" 



Sandy (at left) and Jeni at Oprah taping. (Jeni Stepanek ())
Sandy (at left) and Jeni at Oprah taping. (Jeni Stepanek ())

You've had an amazing journey, and met incredible people and gone through amazing experiences yourself... who is your hero, and why?


I have many heroes. And obviously, the answer that you know to the question is my children, not just Mattie. My other children didn't live the heroic life that becomes book material, they didn't live long enough. But my everyday life hero that's living and inspiring me today is somebody named Sandy Newcomb. The world will never know Sandy Newcomb's name, she isn't famous, but she lives the way that Mattie asked us to live. 


When I met Sandy, I was up and walking, Mattie hadn't even been conceived yet. Sandy and I played tennis, we went roller skating, and I now share a house with this woman who helps me with personal care. She's not my care attendant, she's my BFF, like a sister. I remember Mattie said to Sandy, "Why do you do what you do for my mom and I? Why do you help us so much? It's not ever going to get fixed, I am going to die, my mom's going to die." Most people can't take it and walk away. Sandy talked to him about her beliefs that all we're asked to do in this life is to be kind to others, be kind to the people that are in your path, be kind to your neighbor. As a Christian, she took the words of Jesus, but the words of Jesus are the words of any other good prophet, good speaker, good humanitarian- love your neighbor as yourself. She said your neighbor is whoever happens to be in your path. And that really affected Mattie deeply. And that's  how she lives. Does she get angry? Yah. Does she get sad? Yah. But, this is a woman who's been through absolute hell in her own life, a different hell than I've been through, and yet her goal each day is to make a difference to someone else, and to simply be her best self. And that to me is a hero.


Page created on 8/14/2014 3:51:30 PM

Last edited 1/7/2020 9:36:12 PM

The beliefs, viewpoints and opinions expressed in this hero submission on the website are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs, viewpoints and opinions of The MY HERO Project and its staff.

Related Links - MattieOnline is the official website of the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Foundation.
We Are Family Foundation - WAFF is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the vision of a global family by creating and supporting programs that inspire and educate the next generation about respect, understanding and cultural diversity - while striving to solve some of our big
Three Dot Dash - - Three Dot Dash was inspired by the late 13-year-old poet and peacemaker Mattie J.T. Stepanek.Global Teen Leaders (GTLs) will be carefully selected and invited each year to participate in the yearlong Three Dot Dash® initiative from nominations by non-
Short Animated Tribute to Mattie - A short animated tribute to poet hero Mattie Stepanek. The soundtrack features the St. Paul's Episcopal Day School choir singing a song inspired by one of Mattie's poems.

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