February 27, 2013

Biddeford college student's passion for life inspired others

Matthew Denger, 20, drew strength from his disability and excelled academically and socially.

By Melanie Creamer mcreamer@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Matthew Denger was an ambitious and engaged student at the University of New England in Biddeford, who majored in political science and served as an orientation leader to help new students adjust to campus life.

click image to enlarge

Matthew Denger, 20, and his brother, Patrick, 18, on Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island, Maine in August 2012.

Family photo

Denger, who faced incredible challenges in his fight against Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and inspired countless people with his unwavering strength and passion for life, died Monday. He was 20.

Denger was diagnosed with the disorder in 1997.

Duchenne muscular dystrophy is an inherited disorder that causes progressive muscle degeneration and weakness. Children afflicted with the disorder quickly lose the ability to walk, jump and run.

Denger stopped walking at age 8. Soon after, he lost the use of his arms. The disorder also weakened the muscles that controlled his breathing and heart.

On Monday night, Denger experienced difficulty breathing and suffered heart failure.

Despite the overwhelming challenges he faced, Denger graduated from Biddeford High School in 2011. He was a dedicated volunteer for Sen. Susan Collins' office in Biddeford for five years. He was also a sophomore at the University of New England.

"He handled adversity with grace," said his father, Brian Denger, of Biddeford. "He never allowed his disability to interfere with his desire to interact with others and achieve as much as he physically could."

The journey wasn't easy for Denger. In 2000, as a first-grader at St. James School, he was asked to transfer to another school because St. James didn't have the accommodations he needed.

His family had raised more than $30,000 to pay for a wheelchair lift, but the school held firm on its decision.

The Dengers filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. The commission ruled that the diocese had discriminated against the boy.

Denger attended local public schools and graduated from Biddeford High School in 2011. He was a member of the National Honor Society, the student council, mock trial club and the chamber chorus.

His father said he was a "serious student" and participated in many activities to increase his network of friends.

"His friends were very important to Matthew," his father said. "Matthew was probably one of the kindest, most patient and loving young men I have ever encountered. He never allowed his physical disability to interfere with anything in his life."

Denger's passion for politics led him to volunteer for Collins. He attended legislative conferences and participated in drug studies that support improved patient care.

In a statement Wednesday, Collins said his fight against Duchenne and other forms of muscular dystrophy ignited his passion for politics.

"His disease did not define Matthew, and he lived his life to the absolute fullest," Collins said in a statement. "I will miss him dearly, but I will never forget him and will continue to be a champion for this cause for which he fought so hard."

The average life expectancy for people afflicted with DMD is the mid- to late 20s.

Denger's brother Patrick, 18, also has DMD. He is a senior at Biddeford High School and is expected to graduate 15th out of his class of 200 students.

Denger's father has been running for the past 14 years to raise money for muscular dystrophy research. His father said it's an honor to run for them and others fighting the disease.

"I think it provided them a good example of how families can take control of a disorder, where realistically you have no control because it consumes your life," he said.

On Tuesday, many students at the University of New England gathered to share stories and memories of Matthew Denger.

Tim St. John, associate director for student involvement and new student programs at UNE, said Denger was a great resource and mentor to new students.

"He was the truest representation of what it meant to be genuine," St. John said. "He was truly selfless. There is no doubt that Matthew had such an impact on our community."

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at:

mcreamer@pressherald.com

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