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For brothers, seeing is believing

5/13/2009
Play8:58
E:60- Seeing Is Believing

Can Matt Steven makes two free throws to win the basketball game for his high school, St. Laurence? Matt is blind.

Matt Steven's story is inspirational. A 20-year-old blind student who lives just outside Philadelphia, Matt has always dreamed of playing on a basketball team. I won't tell you his story, because Rick Reilly already did that.

In producing this story for "E:60," I was greatly impressed with Matt's approach to life, his candor and even his jokes. At one point, with massive equipment and bright lights in the gym of Monsignor Bonner High School, Matt called me over. "Hey Ben!" I walked over, thinking Matt was getting tired and needed to take a break. "What's up Matt, do you need to sit down?" I said. Matt responded, "That light over there is blinding ... it's hurting my eyes." At first, I thought, maybe we needed to turn the lights down, but Matt doesn't have eyes. His 24-year-old brother, Joe, started smiling. He got me. "You are messing with me, huh, Matt?" Matt turned toward me and said simply, "Yep."

Matt's story is one of perseverance and trust -- a trust that comes from the bond he shares with Joe. The only way to truly understand Matt is to take a closer look at his older brother.

Joe's entire life has been carefully shaped by Matt. In an "E:60" interview, Joe told reporter Lisa Salters, "I really didn't know it was different until I had a friend over and they were kind of timid around [Matt], they were nervous and didn't know how to talk to him or how to play with him because they were constantly just focused on Matt being blind. I guess I never really noticed that when I was little."

Joe, Matt and their older brother, Allan, grew up with a love for sports. They accommodated Matt, including him in backyard sporting events. If they were playing hockey, they would tell Matt where to shoot the puck.

"I always want more for him," Joe said. It's the motto of Joe's life. When Joe became the head basketball coach of the St. Laurence team in his Catholic Youth Organization league last fall, he figured out how to get Matt involved. Matt became the team manager. Then Matt got to shoot free throws. Then Matt became a hero.

Joe went to Temple University and majored in special education. It isn't hard to decipher how he arrived at that concentration. "Obviously, my brother Matt had a lot to do in influencing my career," Joe said. "The volunteer work I did with him at his grade school, St. Lucy's Day School for the Blind, and Overbrook School for the Blind, was something my family was always a part of and even just helping him in homework or witnessing my mom teaching him at home was an everyday occurrence. This all just felt like part of my life, it didn't feel like work."

While at Temple, Joe began researching how to get involved with programs in the field of special education, outside of teaching. He came across Best Buddies, a nonprofit organization dedicated to "enhancing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities by providing opportunities for one-to-one friendships and integrated employment."

By the time Joe was a junior, he became president of the Best Buddies chapter at Temple. He was matched with Kevin Stroman-Cady. "Kevin had cerebral palsy, which is a neurological disorder that affects muscle control and he used an electric wheelchair," Joe explained. "I talked to Kevin a few times a week on the phone and we hung out about every few months or so. I have never come across a better role model than Kevin. If you can imagine, especially in a world filled with negativity, a kid bound to a wheelchair being the happiest kid in the world and so thankful for life, that was Kevin."

In December, Joe looked at his cell phone and it was Kevin calling, or so he thought. In fact, it was Kevin's mother calling with the news that Kevin, 22, had died. She asked Joe if he would be a pallbearer at the funeral.

"I still stay in touch with the family," Joe said, "but my five-year relationship with Kevin was one of the best experiences of my life. He was a huge impact on my life and the way I view anyone and any situation in a positive way."

Joe graduated in May 2007, and in his eyes, almost by a miracle, a position opened up at Monsignor Bonner High School for him to be a special education teacher. At the same time, Matt was trying to transfer to Bonner, the same school from which both of his brothers graduated. They ended up at Bonner together, and Joe explained that first year eloquently.

"I drove Matt to school for the first couple of months until he realized it was more embarrassing to go to your school with a teacher than it is your mother, so she ended up taking him the majority of the time," Joe said. "For the first two weeks, Matt and I would enter Bonner, head to the bathroom and he would throw up from anxiety as if he were about to fight in a boxing or MMA match. How he managed to maintain the drive to keep going to a school with that much anxiety, I have no clue."

Joe said the community at Monsignor Bonner High gave Matt a social environment that encouraged acceptance, something that his brother always longed for and deeply needed. "Just being accepted as 'normal' helped my brother grow socially and go from a quiet kid to a mature man," Joe said. "The teachers did everything they could to accommodate him, but treated him no different than the other students in the school. ... People, especially kids, have no idea how just accepting someone can change lives."

Joe describes his second job as "a job coach." On some days, after teaching, he works for the Delaware County Intermediate Unit, where he helps secondary students with disabilities attain jobs. He helps students with on-the-job training involving specific skills, and monitors their progress.

Joe's list of occupations and good deeds is quite remarkable: Coach. Best Buddy. Volunteer. Job coach. Teacher.

And Joe's students recognize the heart of a man who wants to make a difference.

Joe Spina, Monsignor Bonner student in Joe's classroom: "Mr. Steven gives so much of his time because he loves seeing people do better and be happier in life."

Jerry Bjorkland, Monsignor Bonner student in Joe's classroom: "Mr. Steven devotes a lot of time to his students, much more than any other teacher I have."

Joanna Saunders, Archbishop Prendergast High student that Joe helps in school: "He is like a friend trying to help us succeed in our school work."

Mike McCreight, Monsignor Bonner senior: "You would think that Mr. Steven would be protective of Matt and tell him what he needs to do for that day but he doesn't. He lets Matt be himself and that is something that you don't see a lot."

When Matt was asked what he thought of Joe's acts of kindness and love toward him, Matt talked about his brother like he would in any other scenario: "We play video games, we go to different places, we have a pretty big relationship ... it shows that he really cares."

Every time I have the opportunity to work on a story like this, it is always life-changing. And if it ever isn't life-changing, then it's time for a new career.

My time with Matt and Joe was relaxed and entertaining. When I think back at this story, I'll always remember the inspiration of Matt Steven, his personality, and of course the shots he made to win the game. And when I think of Joe, I'll see the character of a great man.

I'll see two role models.

Ben Houser is a senior producer for E:60.