Stars at last shining on Mike Stamatis

Burlington’s Mike Stamatis turns twenty today. As he steered his electronic wheelchair over the bricks on the northern tip of Church Street on a chilly afternoon last week, he shared with me his birthday wish list: “I’m enjoying my life more now than I ever have in the past. The best birthday gift I could have is to see my life continue on this course,” he said.

Until recently, Mike had lived a life that made Job look like a lottery winner. He was born with Spina bifida and spent 18 of his first twenty years in a series of foster homes across Vermont – including one in which his foster father took his own life – before landing with John and Mary Provost six months ago. It was 2:30 in the morning when he was brought there directly from the hospital. (Why was he at Fletcher Allen Healthcare? Because he has no feeling in his legs and so he hadn’t realized how seriously infected a cut on his knee had become.)

When he arrived at the Provosts on June 2, Mary told him, “This is the last foster home you’ll have. We’ll make this work.” It would have been understandable if Mike had been dubious, but he wasn’t. Mike is a charismatic and good-natured young adult who is, given his first two decades on this planet, almost unreasonably cheerful.

But he is also unstoppable, and with the help of the Provosts and Spectrum Youth and Family Services, his luck just might have turned. Certainly Mike suspected it when he woke up his first morning at the Provosts’ house in Burlington. Mary asked him how he had slept. It was a simple question, but it set the tone. “It made me feel wanted,” Mike recalls.

He is taking courses at the Community College of Vermont and through Vermont Adult Learning, and expects to graduate high school next June. He is also actively involved with the State’s Youth Development Committee, an arm of the State’s Department for Children and Families, and helping to produce a video with Spectrum about foster care. “The point of the video is to show that foster kids are good kids, it’s not our fault,” he said. “We want people to see that we can be successful.”

His goal is to be a sportscaster and he certainly has the basics: Good talker, knowledgeable, strong opinions. A part of the Red Sox Nation. It’s not hard to imagine him going to head-to-head with Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption.”

In the meantime, Spectrum is assisting him in a variety of ways. “They are really supportive,” he told me. In Mike’s case, they have helped with everything from learning to write a resume to getting a learner’s permit so eventually he can drive. Spectrum will work with him to acquire a vehicle he will be able to handle without the use of his legs, and is already helping him hone the skills he will need to live independently as an adult in a couple of years. They got him his gym membership at The Edge so he can swim – and then folks at the Edge found him two of his current athletic passions: sled hockey and motorized soccer.

“Mike is unlike any teenager I’ve ever worked with,” said Amanda Churchill, Youth Development Coordinator at Spectrum. “He’s humble and polite and fun to be with.”
It may still be a long road from Burlington to ESPN – even in a motorized wheelchair. But one of his favorite songs is Rascal Flatts’s “Life is a Highway.” My sense is that if anyone can make it, it’s Mike.

“Being a handicapped person shouldn’t stop you from acting on your dreams,” he told me. “You just have to go for it.”

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This year Spectrum is one of the four local non-profits the Burlington Free Press is supporting via the Giving Season. To make a donation, clip the coupon from the newspaper this month and send it with your donation to Spectrum.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on December 12, 2010.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.