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Paynesville Press - June 2, 2004

Special friends...

By Kayla Welle and Michael Jacobson

Matt and Michael - special friends When Peggy Bayer brought her son, Matt, to preschool, and she saw Michael Naujokas, she wondered if they would ever become friends. She knew Matt and Michael were about the same age, and she knew that they both faced medical issues.

Since then, through more than a dozen years of schooling, Matt and Michael have become best friends.

Matt Bayer and Michael Naujokas - best friends.

Their friendship seems secondhand now because it seems they've been friends forever, said Michael's dad Otto. Matt and Michael are "as close as you can get without actually being brothers," he added.

Matt, the son of Bruce and Peggy Bayer, and Michael, the son of Nancy and Otto Naujokas, started in preschool together, they took special education classes together in elementary school, they participated in Special Olympics together, and now, in high school, they spend most of their school day together as well as spending time together away from school. After graduation on Sunday, Matt and Michael hope to stay together next fall.

Matt and Michael are "two peas in a pod," said senior Adam Kampsen, who has gotten to know Matt through baseball (Matt is the varsity team manager) and gotten to know Michael through Matt.

They are always walking together in the halls. "Wherever Matt is, Michael is usually there, too," explained Adam.

Matt and Michael complement each other, according to their mothers, Peggy and Nancy. While Matt may be more social, Michael may be better academically, said Peggy, as an example.

Bayer and Naujokas boys Alycia Long, who has taught Matt and Michael since eighth grade and is now their primary teacher, agrees that they complement each other and compares them to twins. Where one has a weakness, the other helps. And no matter what happens, they are there for each other, she said.

Matt (far right) and Michael (second from right) have been friends since grade school. This picture is one of the first of them together, probably taken around the time that their younger brothers Sam Bayer (far left) and Alex Naujokas (second from left) were in kindergarten together.

A few years ago Matt was injured in a bike accident. "When Matt was in the hospital, we saw a side of their friendship that we didn't really know existed," said Bruce.

Before the accident, Bruce and Peggy assumed that their friendship was pretty light and friendly because Matt and Michael are always so happy and friendly.

But at the hospital, Michael was very nervous, telling his mom, "That's my best friend." And Matt asked everyone to leave his hospital room so he could speak privately to Michael, an unusual request.

Only Matt and Michael know what was said in that hospital room. Their parents saw them talking and smiling and saw Michael holding Matt's arm tenderly. "That day took us by surprise," said Bruce.

Matt and Michael both like country music, both like watching TV, especially professional wrestling, both like helping with household chores, and both like watching sports, especially their brothers. They have the same favorite musician (Shania Twain) and the same favorite teachers (Long and Brad Skoglund).

Matt and Michael are easy to supervise, said Peggy. Normally, when her sons have friends over they will eventually run out of things to do and ask her for suggestiong for things to do. But Matt and Michael can entertain themselves for hours, she said.

Because of Matt and Michael, the Bayers and the Naujokases have developed a family friendship (spurred in part because both families were facing similar issues with their oldest sons and also because Matt's and Michael's younger brothers, Sam and Alex, are also the same age, played youth hockey together, and still play football and baseball together.)

Nancy is amazed that two families, living a quarter mile apart in Paynesville Township, could have so much in common. The families agree that their friendship grew so deep because of Matt and Michael, because the families faced similar issues in their medical conditions and their schooling, and because whenever they needed support, the other family was there.

Even Sam and Alex also have similar responsibilities, said Bruce, in that they are younger brothers who have to act like older brothers. Bruce and Peggy know that Alex and Sam look out for both of their older brothers.

In addition to the support between the families, Bruce and Peggy also are grateful for Matt's and Michael's upbringing in Paynesville. Their classmates, and the town, have been great supporters for both Matt and Michael, they said.

Like Matt's classmates donating money to buy him a new bike after he had a bike accident in middle school. Or a baseball player sending his mom to get Matt the right kind of socks for his baseball uniform, so he looked identical to his teammates

. In 13 years of schooling, Kampsen never remembers anybody picking on Matt or Michael. "I think everyone in the community treats them as part of the community," he said, "like they belong, and they do."

Matt and Michael can take something like lifting weights in the fitness center and make it entertaining, said Kampsen. "If you want comedy, watch them lift weights," he said.

Any successful lift, even a couple inches, is cause for celebration, explained Adam, complete with poses, victory laps, and mimicking their favorite pro wrestling heroes like Brock Lesnar.

Last year, both Matt and Michael competed at state in Special Olympics powerlifting. This year, only Matt competed, but Michael was there, cheering on his friend, just as excited as if he was competing himself.

Matt cheering at baseball team In the last year, Kampsen believes Matt and Michael have become more outgoing, more talkative at school, and more confident. Now, he said, they are far from shy.

"They're just hilarious," said Alice Nyhlen, the computer lab specialist at PAHS, where Matt and Michael visit several times per week. "They're the neatest kids."

Matt Bayer, the manager for the varsity baseball team this spring, celebrates a victory for the Bulldogs.

This winter, someone told a joke about a chicken at lunch, and "the next thing you know," according to Kampsen, Matt is standing up imitating chicken sounds: "Cock-a-doodle-do." Then Michael starts imitating a chicken, flapping his arms like wings and walking up and down the rows of lunchroom tables.

"Once they realized they had the attention of the whole lunchroom, they weren't going to stop," said Kampsen, who described it as the funniest thing, by far, this entire school year.

Incidents like having a gull land its poop right on your head or losing your swim trunks while tubing prompt not anger but laughter from Matt and Michael.

Life Outlook
While Michael can be stubborn, normally he is patient, happy, caring, and quick to laugh, said Nancy Matt is similar. "They're just so happy most of the time," said Nancy. "They're truly gifts."

Michael working Matt does not carry grudges and does not worry about tomorrow, said Bruce and Peggy.

"They're usually pretty happy," said Peggy. "If they get angry with each other, it's short-lived. Overall, they're pretty good-natured."

"They've always got a smile on. They've always got something to smile about," said Bruce.

Maybe their medical conditions have contributed to their optimistic life outlooks.

Michael works at H& L Express during his school day.

While Matt has Down's Syndrome, Michael suffers from a number of medical problems stemming from a traumatic birth. He was born at seven and a half pounds with a condition called hydrops, meaning half of that weight was fluid. His condition was discovered when Nancy lost weight a week before he was due (before ultrasounds were standard procedures), necessitating an emergency Caesarean section.

Then, for five straight days as a newborn, Michael suffered seizures, making Nancy and Otto fear they were going to lose him. But, with a new drug, the seizures stopped.

Michael spent his first month of life in the hospital. His traumatic birth led to a number of subsequent medical problems: including immune deficiency, hearing loss, optic atrophy, and scoliosis.

While each of these have presented problems, Michael has taught the Naujokases how special each developmental step is for a child. When you are told that your son may never walk, the day he does becomes much more special, for example. While each developmental step might have taken more work, the reward was always commensurate. The rewards always outweighed the struggle, according to Nancy and Otto.

So while they may be labeled as special education students, their friends, teachers, and parents believe Matt and Michael are truly special. "Everything to them is a blessing. That's what's so special about them," explained Kampsen.

"They're never in a bad mood, and they're always fun to be around," continued Kampsen. "They can take the most boring thing and turn it upside down," added Kampsen.

"They're such special people," said Long, "and to know that I am part of that makes it so special to me."

"They're both so positive. We can learn a lot from them," said Skoglund. "Sometimes we can worry and get down about little things, and they're always having fun, laughing, and smiling."

Matt and Michael are friendly and very nice to others. In return, said Skoglund, other students in the high school are very accepting towards them, too. Matt, who is the student manager on the baseball team, coached by Skoglund, fits in well with the team, said Skoglund, and other players have hopefully learned from him.

"Matt is part of the team. He's not only a part of the team, he's everybody's friend. It wouldn't be the team without him," said Kampsen.

Future Plans
Next fall, Matt and Michael will stay together when they attend a program in Sauk Centre to assess their skills and judge their prospects for employment and living status. "We're both happy that they're doing this together. It's nice to know that Matt has Michael, and Michael has Matt. They can take care of each other. It's nice that they could be together," said Peggy.

The Bayers and the Naujokases hope that Matt and Michael will stay together following the assessment program, too. "We don't want this friendship to end," Peggy added.

"It'd be nice if they could continue together," said Otto. Even better, he said, would be if they could both remain in Paynesville, a place that they understand and whose people understand them, he added.

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