Mattie Stepanek lived a more impressive life in his 13 short years on the planet than most people could live in 100. He started writing poetry at age 4 and soon wrote enough to publish them in a series of books called “Heartsongs,” which went on to become best-sellers and make Stepanek a fixture on the Oprah Winfrey and Larry King shows. He also received honors from numerous leaders, including former President Jimmy Carter.

However, Stepanek had an enormous obstacle in his life: a disease known as dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy, which interrupted his autonomic, or automatic, functions such as breathing, heart rate and digestion. And in honor of his tragic passing in June 2004, local educational and human-rights activist Nat Nehdar has organized and dedicated an impressive concert to be held this Sunday in Stepanek’s honor at the First Church of the Nazarene of Pasadena.

“This year is the 15th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Mattie, despite having disabilities, never allowed that to become a hindrance to him,” said Nehdar. “His brother and sister had the same disease and passed away at age 3 and Mattie wasn’t supposed to even live that long. However, he started writing at age 4 and inspired millions around the world.”

The concert, titled “Peace Through Music: Ending Hate, Giving Hope, Bringing Joy” is the seventh annual event organized by Nehdar to inspire community efforts at ending violence in schools. He was inspired by the tragic killings at Columbine High and has since not only raised funds for causes aimed at preventing school violence but also put his own time on the line each year in presenting up to 25 talks in Pasadena schools on respect for self, authorities and peers and finding nonviolent resolutions to conflicts.

Nehdar also tries to produce the concerts on or near the anniversary dates of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to add another powerful dimension to the programs. He started honoring peacemakers with last year’s concert and considered Stepanek’s work to be worthy of that honor. Stepanek was the National Goodwill Ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

“He was so enlightening. Every day of his life to him was a beautiful day. He never took his setback as a handicap, and he brought joy to so many people. Whenever the question was asked of him, ‘Aren’t you afraid of death?’ he said, ‘No, God has a plan for me. I’m here on a journey and mission,’” Nehdar explained.

“After he left us, we knew that his mission was to bring joy to people, peace and harmony. He wanted all people to come together under the same umbrella of humanity, a full rainbow of all colors.”

Nehdar also noted that he hopes Stepanek’s life and how he handled his suffering in such big things as having a tracheotomy tube in his neck at all times and a Broviac tube that went into his heart for medicines and IV fluids.

“That’s why I want to honor him; to show people how lucky they are at what they have and not to take despair in little things like slight pain or a headache. Look at what Mattie went through,” Nehdar said.

Each year, Nehdar’s concert draws numerous acts from around the globe to the Nazarene church’s 2,500-seat auditorium. The shows are always emceed by NBC Channel 4 reporter Furnell Chatman, and this year’s lineup includes gospel singer-dancers Ruth Davis & the Mountain Climbers, country western singer Eddie Cunningham, nationally renowned jazz musician Nolan Shaheed, Nigerian folk dancing troupe Umuigbousa, musical artists the Hidalgo Trio, vocal gospel singers Testify, and international singing and recording artist Louiza.

But two of the other acts on the extensive and impressive bill are the closest to Nehdar’s heart.

“The Bethune Theatredanse is a dance troupe that inspires disabled people because the dancers themselves have disabilities,” said Nehdar. “And wait ’til you see the International Peace Choir, which features orphans from places like Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iran and other Third World countries, singing in their own languages.”

Funds raised by the concert, which costs just $10, will go to school programs of the Pasadena Human Relations Commission and to the In His Image program at the First Church of the Nazarene.

In His Image provides counseling for kids with disabilities “to uplift them and help them be vibrant and hopefully as productive as can be someday,” Nehdar said.

“We need to honor all people as we are. Don’t look at people as handicapped. Look at them as human beings with obstacles and do everything we can to help them overcome those,” said Nehdar.

“We have to respect each other and say that God has a reason for all of us and God wants justice and equality for all of us. Never look down on someone in a wheelchair or because they’re not as we are. We honor the Americans with Disabilities Act because it finally provided the rules, laws and benefits they should have.” 


The “Peace Through Music” concert will be presented at 3 p.m. Sunday at the First Church of the Nazarene of Pasadena, 3700 E. Sierra Madre Blvd., Pasadena. Tickets are available only at the door. For more information about Mattie Stepanek, visit www.mattieonline.com.