Coach Spotlight: Justin and Matt

Just Say Yes

“When opportunity arises – without details, without logistics – just say yes.” ~ Matt Mescall

A Journey to Alaska. A Journey to a Forever Impact.

Camp Abilities is about asking children who are visually impaired to take a risk, to try something new. Camp Abilities asks kids to step into the unknown and enjoy the freefall. Camp Abilities is an adventure where kids do what some might believe is impossible. It is a place where lifelong relationships bloom and dreams are uncovered. Kids often leave Camp Abilities on a new path – a path to be a great athlete or to take care of their physical bodies or to speak up for themselves or to enter the world with a new confidence. 

In 2009, Justin Haegele and Matt Mescall drove from New York to Alaska to work at Camp Abilities Alaska. They enjoyed their own adventure, built a lifelong friendship, and found a new path. For two hours they relived their journey with me.

Every person I interview about Camp Abilities is inspiring. They are brave and innovative visionaries. Justin and Matt are all of those, but they are also very entertaining. Once I got the two of them started, I was able to sit back and enjoy their memories. They dropped back into their college days as if twenty years had not passed. 

I met with them over two weeks ago and I’ve struggled with how to get their admiration for each other on the page. I’ve wrestled with what to communicate to you. Our conversation would ricochet as a new memory or a new picture appeared. I didn’t try to steer the talk. I asked for, and received, just Justin and just Matt. The real people. The true friends. 

Imagine

I’d like you to imagine spending over 200 hours and over 28 days in a car (plus another 17 days in a camp with kids) with someone you barely know. The car is a ten-year-old, “piece of crap” Dodge Stratus that got only 10 miles to the gallon. You are not an experienced traveler and you are not loaded down with cash. You are going from city to city, living in the car or sleeping on strangers’ couches (or tent camping in their backyard). You are living on beef jerky and Swedish Fish. Now that you have the picture in your mind, let’s begin.

“All of Them”: 2009

In 2009, Justin was a graduate student at SUNY-Brockport in the General Physical Education degree program. It was a Tuesday when his life took a new, unexpected turn. Justin readily admits he had a drinking problem. On that fateful Tuesday, he made the difficult choice to stop drinking. He put down the bottle but faced a void. What would he do with his time and energy that had once been filled with alcohol and foolishness? As life often does, an answer presented itself. For Justin, the answer was found in Lauren Lieberman’s challenge. 

The very next day, Justin sat in Lauren’s class. “She walked in and she was annoyed. She was carrying a stack of papers, flapping them in the air. ‘I have all these opportunities and no one showing interest.’ ”The opportunities involved trips to Texas, Boston and Alaska. Justin said, “I was really good at being drunk and stupid. So, I decided to be really good at adaptive physical education.” He raised his hand and said, “I’ll do it.” Lauren smiled and said, “Which one?”

“All of them.”

“I’ll Go.”

Justin happened to teach the undergraduate Advanced Volleyball course for students in the General PE program. Just as Lauren opened a door for Justin, Justin opened a door for Matt. Justin looked at the students and asked, “Who wants to go to Alaska?”

Matt didn’t know Justin except as his teacher. “I stood there waiting for someone to volunteer. But no one did and I began to feel bad for the guy. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t NOT want to go. I had no interest in Adaptive PE beyond a course I had to take, and I’d never considered a trip to Alaska. But there Justin stood, waiting. Finally, just to rescue the guy I said, ‘Sure, I’ll go.’”

Matt told me this story before Justin joined the conversation. When I relayed it back to Justin, he said, “That is Matt. When he feels bad for someone, he is willing to take on an incredible burden. He is the guy who would agree to a trip to Alaska just to help someone. Someone he didn’t even know.” Even twenty years later, he has such respect for Matt’s willingness to go on an adventure with a virtual stranger, it laces his voice and shows on his face. 

45 Days, Twelve Thousand Miles

Justin was from Long Island and Matt from Buffalo. Justin tells this great, poignant story of arriving at Matt’s house on day one of their journey:

“I couldn’t believe it. His entire family was there for this big send off. Aunts and uncles. They had maps and signs. We went to his grandparents for a big dinner. They embraced me as if I were family even though they hardly knew me. We had a big party. That type of family was a new experience for me.”

Matt remembered, “Oh that’s right, my parents put a map up in the kitchen so when we called, they could track our path. Problem was, we almost never called.”

They climbed in the old Dodge and started a journey that took them from Buffalo to Chicago to Minnesota to Colorado Springs to Oregon through the Yukon of Canada and then to Alaska. They camped some, slept in the car some, had a few beds and even slept in a few backyards. They ate a lot of jerky and gorged on Swedish Fish candy. They bathed sometimes and they never washed the car. While in the continental US, they received a lot of help. Even strangers, when they heard their story, offered funds and food. 

But once in Canada, they said, “It was like exploring the moon.” Many of the roads were unpaved and led to some unique areas. They went to a diner in British Columbia where the waitress served “some sort of charred trout.” It was the only place they felt the need to leave before enjoying the mystery meat. As Justin put it, “We were dirty, and we stunk. We weren’t used to dealing with the outside world.” 

Several times they felt unsafe. “We’d wake up and it would be pitch black. We’d have no idea where we were and I’d think, ‘Let’s get out of here.’” They did carry bear spray. “But that was more for people than bears.”

They talked about the man who lived beneath a glacier. Literally, they met this ancient man who lived under a glacier. He would come out of his little hole and sell books about basketball to tourists. Justin said, “What I found the strangest was these books had price tags. I mean, seriously, this man was basically homeless, but he had a way to create price tags? It was this weird piece of normalcy in this weird place.” Needless to say, Justin bought a book and it is on his shelf in his office at Old Dominion.

“We thought we were the champs of the road. But then we met this motorcycle couple who were driving all the way to Argentina.” His motorcycle was covered in stickers and now he has a Camp Abilities sticker too.

Interestingly, on a forty-five-day trip, they only had one fight. “We argued over which was better – the NBA or NCAA basketball. Matt was firmly in the college camp. I was all about the pros,” Justin said. 

“Matt told me he wasn’t an explorer,” Justin mused. “But one time he decided to walk into a 400-foot ravine to see a lake.”

“And remember that time I went up the mountain and kept getting higher and higher. I called my dad and told him I wasn’t sure I’d make it back down. My father said ‘What!” but then the phone died. I made it back down but didn’t remember to call my dad for two weeks.”

“I discovered there is a playground out there for me.” ~ Matt

At one-point Matt said, “Wait, I think that was our second trip.” A SECOND trip? It turns out Justin and Matt drove to Alaska twice – 2009 and 2012. Their memories are interwoven like a beautiful quilt. I quit trying to separate the experiences.

I asked each of them if they had to choose ONE favorite memory – only ONE – what would it be?

Matt: “I’m not sure it’s a favorite, but it’s very clear to me. We were in British Columbia. We stopped at a lake – a crystal clear lake. We were disgusting so we jumped in. It was freezing water but the most beautiful place in the world.”

Justin: “You know, I don’t have one memory. It’s eleven years later and every time we talk, new memories come up. I will say that first trip framed my life – both personally and professionally. Our bond is unique because of these experiences.

Lessons on the Journey

What did they learn about themselves that is still part of the men they are today?

Matt: “First, I made the switch from General Physical Education to Adaptive. I also learned that the people you surround yourself with is a choice. It was my first time really choosing my relationships. It was the first time I was able to choose people in my life who align with my goals.”

Justin: “I’d never been west of Buffalo. I learned there is a wide world out there. These trips solidified my addiction to travel.”

Camp Abilities Alaska

“We thought we were going to Alaska to help kids. But they helped us more than we helped them.” ~ Justin

Once in Alaska, Justin and Matt met kids who were already doing astonishing things. “These kids already did more than we did.”

  • There was Tommy who hunted bear.
  • There was Wyatt who lived on a very remote island and spent his days hiking mountains.

I tried to get each of them to tell me, “What activity did you think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we’re asking the kids to do this? What took the most courage?’” I think their answers encapsulate the entire mission of Camp Abilities:

Justin: “If they want to do it, then we just do it. I don’t ever remember telling a camper ‘no’. The point of Camp Abilities is not to need courage.”

Matt: “We build relationships and trust. Then we are able to push each other. On my first hike I was with Paul. We were becoming friends and developing together. We were developing in different areas perhaps. But still developing. I still talk with Paul.

“At camp, so much is revealed about yourself. We are together for weeks. We are exhausted. There is no hiding. You get broken down and then built back up.”  ~ Matt

“I’m the one who benefits. It may be a selfish attitude. But I’ve seen it with myself and with the volunteers. Camp Abilities really does alter your path. I can name two dozen – probably more – who made career changes.” ~ Justin

“Remember Cody – I’m still good friends with him. He was 17 when he volunteered in Connecticut and I convinced his mom to let him come to Alaska. He’s a high-quality human. He now teaches the visually impaired and started his own company.” ~ Justin

Why Sports?

Camp Abilities focuses on sports and athletic endeavors, so I asked Justin and Matt what are the benefits of sport?

Matt: “Sports are an opportunity – an opportunity for anything. To travel. To build character. To cope with defeat and success. To unite. To build relationships.”

I pointed out to the guys that none of those benefits had anything to do with athletic success. 

“It’s not about athletics. It’s about learning to pick up the ball – whatever that ball is.” ~ Matt

Where Are They Now

The 2009 Dodge Stratus died one month after their return. “The engine just fell through the frame.”

I was very pleasantly surprised to learn Justin and Matt are still best friends. They are both married with small children. The families travel together and Justin and Matt talk to each other regularly. 

Justin Haegele has his PhD and is an Associate Professor, Health & Physical Education, Department of Human Movement Studies, Old Dominion University, Virginia Beach, Virginia.   

Matt Mescall is the newly appointed principal of the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was in the midst of determining the best way to bring school to his students during the COVID pandemic

Between the two men, Matt and Justin have worked with Camp Abilities over thirty times in Alaska, Connecticut, and Maryland. Matt is hoping to bring Camp Abilities to his school in North Carolina if he can raise the funds.

Justin and Matt enjoyed their own adventure, built a lifelong friendship, and found a new path. Camp Abilities is better for having Justin and Matt as volunteers and advocates. Justin and Matt are better people for having been volunteers for Camp Abilities. When you JUST SAY YES, everyone can benefit.

They both JUST SAY YES as often as they can.

This Summer?

As we signed off, Justin said, “Hey Matt. We should drive to Alaska this summer.”

He was serious. It won’t happen this summer or even the next because they have wives and small children. But one day soon, you might be in a convenience store when two men arrive and buy all the Swedish Fish. You’ll know it’s Justin and Matt because they will be arguing about basketball. And they will be laughing. 

PS

If you ever get the chance to talk to Justin, please ask him about the bananas. Only through his retelling can you understand the joy for him and the campers.

~submitted by June Converse

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