Every week, Lake Voice features work from the Storytelling Project. This project is a storytelling partnership between a group of young Duluthians who live with some kind of disability (mostly traumatic brain injuries) and various UMD students who help these people write their stories.
One hour spent with this group can help you see how important it is to build community connections and execute service-learning projects the way they are really meant to be done.
This addition of the Storytelling Project comes from Matt Philgren who will tell it to you like it is.
Philgren discribes himself as a Special Olympian, a lady's man, a WWE fan, and a guy who has been in a lot of trouble. However, Philgren has turned his rough background of run-ins with the law, being in and out of correctional programs, group homes, and foster care into a success story.
Today he is working toward completing his degree in informatics at Lake Superior College, aspires to get his Master's degree at UMD, and retire at an old age.
Let this story serve as inspiration, motivation, and affirmation that a disability, or just a rough past, doesn't have to be the defining factor of your life.
A Life in the Day of Matt
By Matt Philgren, in Collaboration with Eric King
I’m Matt – I graduated high school in 2002 – I golf in the Special Olympics, and I’m kind of a troublemaker. That’s the story – just write it, okay. You want more!? Weeeell, okay. I was born in St. Paul at Regents Hospital on February 9th, 1980 – I’m thirty-three. You want to know about the hospital and me being born? I was just born! I don’t know that – well . . . I do know that my birth mom dropped me, she shook me and dropped me a couple of times, she took me to the hospital, they looked at her, and they took me away – I don’t really remember! I was just a baby then! That’s what I know about it. But that’s not really the story; that’s where it starts because that’s where I start, but the story really comes after. You might not know it, but I’m a trouble maker, I was a troublemaker – it’s my rough past, and it’s behind me now, but you have to hear it to hear me; to understand who I am and you need to know about where I've been. So we’ll start at when I remember . . .
I guess my first memory was around six or seven in kindergarten; no, that’s not right, it was five or six when my grandpa took care of me when I had the chicken pox. I don’t really remember anything in particular, so don’t ask, but that’s where it starts – born, memory, and then . . . wait . . . okay, before that there’s a story. My adoptive mother loves to tell this story, so I’ll tell you. When I was two, we had a foster child that was two years old. We were at our godmother’s house, and this little toddler was like a genius – if there was something on top of the refrigerator he wanted, he would pull out all the drawers and climb up. I learned to walk by watching him, but I would walk right into the counters instead of climbing. I would have this little bump on my head, and my foster mother saw that my foster brother was trying to climb the refrigerator and that I was trying to mimic him.
Me and the bump, that was before I remember. But I want to tell you about everything else. The trouble, that’s important, because I’m here today – I learned from the trouble I’ve gotten in, and I’d like you to hear that. There were girls too . . . okay, are girls still. And it’s all part of the story of Matt. Leeet’s see . . . I went to kindergarten at one school, when I was 6, and I was always the oldest kid. I went to first and second grade in that school, third and fourth in another, and fifth and sixth in another. I think they were Emit D. Williams, Edgerton, and Bremhall. Remember much? Ummm, no. Except that I was a poor student. How? Well, I just sucked, okay! Kind of getting in trouble – I guess I was a troublemaker, I’d talk back to the teacher and get in fights. Yeah, that’s happened – like this one time this guy took my Mountain Dew -----
----- I was at my workplace. Where? Oh, yeah, TSE . . . anyway, I was at my workplace, and I had this open can of Mountain Dew, and this big guy – he was waaay fatter than me – took my pop. I got mad, and this female worker tried to restrain me. I accidentally broke her ankle when I was struggling. I got charged with Assault 5 and went to jail. The group home eventually came and got me, and I had more problems there. But I want you to hear it – it’ll teach you a lesson: if someone takes your Mountain Dew, don’t beat that person up. You’ll go to jail instead of that person -----
---- I was twenty-four then. So what if we skipped years! This is my story. Okay, okay, we’ll go back for now. After elementary school, I got in a little more trouble. At 11, just after fifth grade, my adoptive mom couldn’t handle me anymore, and I went into foster care, then to a group shelter, stayed at the Salvation Army for a little while, and then to a foster home. I got kicked out of there and went back to Salvation Army. But this time I broke a window and got sent to juvy – I did some property damage – but that whole bunch of places brought me to Sandy’s.
What is Sandy’s? It’s a boy’s ranch – I didn’t like it much, it was just dumb, okay? It was a jail like environment – jail environment, that’s funny, but we’ll get there – it was controlled, you had to go to school. I made a few friends, and my mom came and visited a few times. But I went there in ’93 and ended up staying for three years . . . weeell, I got sentenced to three years. One night, me and some buddies were talking, and we decided to leave. I think, yeah, one guy had a girl somewhere and we were going to go there. But we left, and as we were walking down the street, we heard sirens AND we heard dogs. The next step was only smart – we hid in a ditch along the side of the road. We sat there for about half an hour, and the staff and a sheriff eventually drove by and found us. They sent me back to juvy then, ‘cause I violated my probation (for escaping from the ranch), and they just sent me back again. For three years!
But then I went to Northwoods Children’s home up here in Duluth. I was in seventh grade, and it sucked. You had to change your clothes for gym class and go back and forth between classes; I had English, math, and science, so I moved around a lot and didn’t like it. But I was pretty much a straight A student – I wanted to be good. Why be good in Duluth? I don’t know, I guess it was important to get out of the group home I was in and get back towards the cities – I wanted to be near family, so that was important to me. I did good at Northwoods, though, in my first couple days! Then I started to test the system. It was good too. There were a lot more freedoms, and they had girls; that was a good thing. I had a few girlfriends there, but I started to realize that I didn’t want to be up here, I wanted to be near my family. It was good though – I had ups and downs, but doesn’t everyone in a group home? I mean I’m in a group home now, and my roommate -----
----- my roommate just passed on. It’s hard this week – I’m just trying to not shut down. I’ve slept a lot . . . but I know how to deal with it. A few years ago, my godmother was passing on, and I found out how to handle losing someone, but my girlfriend didn’t have to break up with me too! She knew – she knew that my roommate was is bad shape, and she still broke up with me! She didn’t like it that I smoke, so you know what, I can’t wait to shop this week – pack of Marbs! I’m thirty-three years old, I can do what I want. Why’d she break up with me? Weeeell, I’m hanging out with a girl she doesn’t like – no, no, we’re just friends, she’s my best friend. Dan? Dan’s not my best friend, he’s my bro. There’s a difference. But let’s talk about something else – Paul Barer passed away last week. Of course it’s the same Paul Barer, he’s the same guy. No! It’s always been the same Undertaker too – people thought that, that he changed over the years, but he hasn’t! It’s always been the same guy! Yeah dude dadee -----
----- Then, yeah, high school came, and I moved back down to the Cities. I went to Highland Park, Humbolt, and then back to Highland Park – I had some problems, I worked them out though. I graduated in 1999 and then stuck around a few years after to get vocational training, but that was at White Bear Lake. Where doesn’t matter, though! What happened, that’s the important part. I was in high school until 2002, so you know what that means . . . I had my twenty-first birthday in high school! How was it staying around for another 3 years? All I got to say is more proms, dude! And so much more happened in high school . . . .
I went out for football at the start of my junior year. It was fun, and funny – I went for the first few days and then we put on the pads for scrimmage. I was skinny back then, like a small dog that thought he could play with the big dogs, and I was on the line. Before the first play could start, I stood up, looked at the coach, and asked, “could I be the water boy?” I told you it was funny! I’m a funny guy, I know it. But I didn’t stick around too long in football – games went too late, past curfew, and I was worried about violating probation again. You see, the group home I moved into in the Cities was the worst ever. If they ever had a problem, they would just call the cops. I ended up in the hospital a lot, in juvy and suspended from school too. So I didn’t want to push it too far with the late games.
I played soccer at White Bear Lake too! I was an athlete, man! I played for a year and a half – half way through the second year, my doctor told me I needed knee surgery. At first it was just a little surgery, but things kept going wrong. They put a screw in, and then they told me I needed a realignment. So I didn’t get to play soccer too long, but we took second at state my first year!
Did I tell you I did karate for a while too? I was good at it ‘cause I was a fast-paced learner – after only a month, I was almost to my yellow belt. And I competed in a couple of tournaments – I was going at it, dude! In one tournament, I got second place in my skills test, and I got DQ’ed from sparring. Yep! I knocked out my opponent – they said I was too rough. I didn’t stick with it; the first month was free, after that it was too expensive, but I like it. I love martial arts, and Bruce Lee is the best! WWE is great, and I love the Undertaker and Kane, but Bruce Lee could kick them all . . . so what if he’s dead? Even the zombie Bruce Lee could kick Jackie Chan any day; even wrestlers, yep, cause in that movie where he goes up those levels, in the end there was a sumo wrestler, and he beat him. Bolo Yeung is cool too! He was in Bloodsport . . . did you know that was based on a real guy? His name was Frank Dux and he won the Kumite. Oh, it’s real!
I played some sports, but I promised you, didn’t I, so here it is – my twenty-first birthday while in high school. And guess what? I asked my teacher ahead of time if I could not come to school because it was my twenty-first, and she said yes! It was a lot like other twenty-firsts – I took a ton of shots. My fiancé came with me, and we went to every bar possible – my favorite was this bar that gave you a free beer every time you bought one. It’s enough to say I got drunk. My fiancé had to go home, so I went to a few more places. The last one, though, was this Italian restaurant; this is funny, I went in, and asked for a free beer – I guess I was being a little loud ‘cause they called the cops, but instead of taking me to detox, they just gave me a ride home and I came home waaay past curfew – 1 a.m. I was supposed to be there at 10 p.m. It was a fun night, and being twenty-one, I got to drink at my senior prom later on. But what wasn’t fun, the next day. Being hungover and in high school is not as fun as having your twenty-first birthday.
Oh yeah, I just brought her up but didn’t explain. I got married that year, too! It was a commitment ceremony – it’s the same as a wedding, but you don’t get a license. Her name was Younah Sherry Kiry. We were together for three years, but it just didn’t work out, I guess. She thought I drank too much, and I didn’t like how she was into drugs, and my mom didn’t like her either. We broke up, and that was okay, my mom was happy, though – Younah would buy me stuff, and my mom didn’t like that either – she thought I was taking advantage of her. But I bought her stuff too! I bought a ring, didn’t I?!
But that was high school. 2002 and I graduated. The next two years were okay – we went to a Twins game, me and the group home. It was the one when Chuck Knoblauch came back to play with the Yankees. Everyone was throwing stuff on the field so Knoblauch would know we didn’t like him, and I wanted to too – the staff told me not too, and I was like, “c’mon, that’s no fun.” I didn’t, though, I wanted to, but I didn’t want to get arrested -----
----- I have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow. I had my annual check–up today, and I’m healthy! I might be fat, but I’m healthy! Tomorrow? That’s a hearing test. I’m 100% deaf in my left ear and 20% in my right. Yeah, that’s why I sit on your left – I can hear you that way. But the cool thing about tomorrow – I get to go into a sound-proof box. No, it’s not really a box, it’s a big room. But if I qualify, I’ll get new hearing aids -----
----- I got in a little more trouble when I was twenty-four too. Yeah, in 2004 – I was born in 1980, remember? But this one day, I got angry again. I kicked a hole in a wall, and then I put this guy in a headlock (I was skinny back then too). But I didn’t get bailed out that time, and I had to wait months before getting in another shelter; I got in because my family was on the board of directors. But I got arrested again later that year – I was at work, and I got pissed off, people were buggin’ me, and I couldn’t calm down. So the supervisor told the staff to call the sheriff. When they came, I rose my cane (I was using one because of the knee surgeries). After I calmed down, I tried to talk them out of it. How? I said, “please don’t arrest me.” They asked me why I was upset, and I told them: not long ago, a cop got shot in an alley. It was the first cop that arrested me, way back when I was thirteen; I knew the guy well – he was the first one to tell me to turn my life around. I got arrested, though, and released the next day. They bought my sob story – I told the public defender, and he said, “Well, they shouldn’t have been messing with you that day.”
The next year, I left the state-run group home – oh, it was great to leave. I didn’t like it much, and when I left, I was like, “see ya suckahs!” The staff there was mean, and you’d be mad too if you got called Jerry Springer just for being a flirt. But I left, and went into a foster home. That was great. The foster mom was really nice – it was a small house, one story and a basement, and our foster mom lived in the basement while us guys lived upstairs. She cooked for us all the time, and when she was gone, we got to do whatever we wanted. But my case worker thought it would be good for me to get a new environment – he found out I violated probation two times by not going to work (I was working at Merik at the time making headphones). That’s when I came here to Duluth, a little before my twenty-sixth birthday. I got in ‘cause the program director of TBI (that’s Traumatic Brain Injury), knew me from way back in my Northwoods days.
I didn’t want to go; I was moving away from my family again. But on the way up here, we stopped at Taco Bell, and the house supervisor bought lunch – it helped a little on the car ride, but it still took me a couple of weeks to get settled up here. I started working and started testing the limits – I found out that if I did good, I could get into a better position in the company. And I did. I started out on a lawn crew – that was okay, I rode a John Deere. Can you imagine me behind a John Deere?! Scary, huh. But it was okay – we had our fun days and our boring days. Sometimes the other guys would be lazy, and the job coach and I would have to do all the work. And this one time, one of the other guys found a dead rabbit and threw it at another – it was pretty funny and all the staff were laughing.
And that’s what life was like: I would get up, play video games, do an activity, go to work if I worked that day, and that’s it. At twenty-nine, I started to go to college at Lake Superior College. It was great. And I stopped on the lawn crew and started doing janitorial work – I liked that, I got to do my own thing there. People weren’t all over bossing me around. I would go in, clean out some classrooms, put up the chairs, sweep the floor, mop the floor, and check with my boss to see if he wanted anything else done. And school was great too – I’m going to go back soon to finish my degree at LSC in informatics, and then I’m going to come to University of Minnesota-Duluth to get my Master’s – think about it, a guy with a brain injury going to UMD, that would be a major accomplishment! Then I’m going to work until I want to retire – maybe around eighty; I’d be an old guy knowing a lot about computers! I started an IT position in TBI less than a year ago too! It’s really nice. I’m the only guy that has all the passwords, so if you want to do something you gotta come see me.
So I’ve liked it up here. I’ve done some fun things, and it’s been good. During the summers, I get to go to golf practice, and I compete in the Special Olympics. Oh, I forgot to tell you, the other day, we were down in the cities, and we went to get my drive tested. I sliced it a little bit, but I hit 179! So I’m averaging 160 on my drive!
And that’s me. Matt Philgren. I’m thirty-three, I work in IT, I’m going to go to UMD one day, and I’m a ladies’ man. I’m also an Olympian and love the WWE, and okay, I’ll admit that Ken Shamrock and Kurt Angle were the baddest guys in the whole thing. And I’ve been in some trouble. Life hasn’t been the prettiest – I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve learned from each one. I’m just like you, and now you know that cause you’ve heard about me. Think about what I’ve told you, and always remember, don’t beat up a guy for taking your Mountain Dew; you’ll only get in trouble.