They say time heals all wounds but what a person does with the scars that remain is the real test. Mike Stahl has passed that test and then some.
On Aug. 20, 2002, Stahl was 17, a local soccer star just about to begin his senior year at Hudson High School, when he lost control of his pickup truck on Hwy. 35 in St. Joseph Township. The vehicle rolled over and he was ejected. He sustained a severe head injury along with damage to his legs. He was in a coma for weeks which was followed by an intensive regimen of treatment and therapy.
But by the beginning of 2003, Stahl was back at Hudson High School attending classes. Right from the start, Stahl's injuries impaired his ability to walk and talk but not his cognitive skills. Despite all the physical obstacles facing him, Stahl made it clear that his life would go on, whatever that meant.
His mother Dianne told the Star-Observer in February 2002 that she wasn't surprised by her son's attitude. It was the way he and his brother Tim were raised. For Mike, it was like any other time they got knocked down playing soccer or whatever. "If there was no blood or bare bones, well, you just picked yourself up and got back in the game. That's the way the boys grew up and that's the way Mike is facing this."
Dianne also said the family was "optimistic in a very real sense that Mike would keep moving forward." She was right.
Today at 27 Mike Stahl is an integral part of the staff of Kids Stuff, the drop in daycare at the Y in Hudson. Two days a week he plays with the children from his wheelchair or often down on the floor with them.
Though he doesn't speak, Stahl has no trouble communicating with the children with the help of his companion Prince Knight. In addition to hand gestures like thumbs up and fist bumps, a great smile and laugh, Stahl has developed his own sign language, using his fingers to shape the letters of the alphabet, to carry on conversations, short and long. He believes it is best because "everyone knows the alphabet." Knight interprets and completes Stahl's words and thoughts quickly. His mother Dianne does the same. While they are there to assist, the conversation is definitely with Stahl who keeps eye contact and watches for the same from whoever he is talking with.
His relationship with Knight is clearly a special one that is built not just on providing assistance but mutual respect and plenty of doses of Stahl's infamous sense of humor.
Tina Bottolfson is the Kids' Stuff coordinator and Stahl's Y boss. She said the work he does with the children in her program is nothing short of phenomenal. "Kids are always curious and they want to know about his wheelchair and how to talk to him but once they know, they roll with it. They aren't uncomfortable once they understand what's going on and then he's just Mike."
"I really like when a kid comes up and crawls into my lap and asks questions," said Stahl.
Y director Bryan Soper, who has a background in vocational rehabilitation, said the Y didn't create a "special job for Mike" but hired him for an essential existing position. "And we're lucky to have someone like him. What a great opportunity for our very young kids to get to know Mike and to understand that we can be different from each other and still work and play together."
Sonya Skramstad is the employment specialist with St. Croix Industries in New Richmond that worked with Stahl and the Y to match him to the job. An avid hunter, Stahl's first choice for a job would have been Cabela's but the Y was a close second. Stahl was skeptical at first telling Skramstad, "You're never going to find me a job."
"But it made total sense and we contacted Tina and with Mike we just made it work," said Skramstad who continues to work with the staff to expand Mike's interaction with the children. "This isn't just a good opportunity for the kids but for their parents as well. We all struggle with how to teach our kids about people who are different from them. Working with Mike makes that a whole lot easier."
Stahl makes a point of crediting Bottolfson and Skramstad for getting him the job. "They are a big part of me doing this."
Dianne Stahl admits that this is not the life she had envisioned for her son. "It sucks, frankly. But he has persevered and continues to work hard. He's making the most of his life and he's happy."
Stahl sums it up this way. "I thought life as I knew it was over but that wasn't the case. The Y gave me a new reason to come and do something more."
And his advice to anyone facing the challenges he has over these past 10 years. "Look forward, never back."