MISSOULA — The mirror never lies, and in the reflective wall of glass at the Missoula Taekwondo Center, Dylan Helms' face is aglow with joy.
As the instructor moves through the lessons of the hour, Dylan and his pint-sized classmates are having serious fun.
Still, they listen. They are respectful. They are eager martial arts students.
Yelling as he throws a punch and swings a wild leg kick, the 8-year-old watches himself in the mirror. He's studying his image to improve his form, but in the spectator seats across the training studio, his parents and others see only happiness in Dylan's reflection.
In this room with padded floor mats and compassionate instruction, Dylan escapes the crippling neuromuscular disease that locks his cheerful spirit in a body that deteriorates a little each day, causing to use a wheelchair many hours at a time.
That he is able to run and kick with the other able-bodied youngsters is a miracle of friendship between the boy afflicted with Friedreich's ataxia and 16-year-old Michael Graef, a Hellgate High School junior.
An accomplished athlete who will soon test for his black belt, Graef gives Dylan physical and emotional support during the twice-weekly class.
Graef keeps Dylan upright and helps guide the boy's body through the specific movements called out by head instructor Steve Rosbarsky.
From afar, the duo move as one — Graef providing the legs and strength, Dylan offering the expressive artistry.
“I help Dylan because it serves as an opportunity for me to enable someone to succeed in something he otherwise couldn't do,” Graef said after a recent class. “Knowing that an hour of my day can change a life bit by bit makes every second worth it.”
“He helps me a lot,” Dylan said. “He's just a good friend. He is Superman.
“No one can do what he does.”
Friedreich's ataxia is a rare inherited disease that causes nervous system damage and movement problems, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
It usually begins in childhood and leads to impaired muscle coordination — ataxia — that worsens over time and often leads to other health problems, including the possibility of early death.
Dylan's parents, Jennifer and Jason Helms, are all too familiar with this uncommon disease that affects 1 in 50,000 people in the United States.
In a strange twist of fate, both Jennifer and Jason are among the one in 70 people who carry the gene and both of the Helms' children — Dylan and 4-year-old Sienna — have the disease.
“This disease came totally out of the blue for us — we never had heard about it,” Jason said. “We didn't know we carried this bad gene, and neither one of us have symptoms.”
As of yet, there are no treatments or cures for this progressive disease, Jennifer said. For now, little Sienna does not show symptoms, but if statistics hold true, the passage of 10 years will likely see Dylan in a wheelchair full-time.
“We are trying to bide time and keep him on his feet,” Jennifer said. “That's why this is so important to him and to us.”
Because the third-grader spends so much time on the sidelines at school watching other kids play and participate in sports, and spends many hours a week with adults at various doctor's appointments and physical therapy sessions, tae kwon do holds a special place in his heart.
For an hour on Mondays and Wednesdays, Dylan he gets to be an active kid with other active kids.
“I like it when we can do the screaming and when we get to high-five,” Dylan explained. “I always do that with Michael.
“Mondays and Wednesdays — they are my favorite days of the week.”
The partnership between the boy and the teenager has brought the community at the Missoula Taekwondo Center even closer — and provided life lessons for all who come and go through the studio.
Ability, compassion and indomitable spirit are words with new meaning for anyone who meets Dylan and watches him work with Michael, said Amanda Rosbarsky, co-owner of the center with her husband Steve.
“Dylan is used to a lot of people catering to the fact he has a disability, and he had to convince himself a little bit that he is more capable than he thinks he is,” Rosbarsky said.
“He's been given this opportunity to shine like all the other kids do. Except for Michael's help, Dylan is treated like any other kid in the class, and that's been amazing to watch.”
“I think all of us and all of the kids are truly learning what it means for someone to work toward and reach their own potential,” she said. “That's a powerful thing.”
The boys' special bond was on full display last month when the center held its annual regional competition.
Because the center has several other students with disabilities, a special division was added to the program.
In front of athletes from Washington, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, the center's unique students competed in the category largely known as “forms,” patterns of memorized self-defense moves that unfold with the elegance of dance.
“When each of them finished, the whole place cheered,” Rosbarsky said. “It was just a fantastic moment, but we all knew the best was yet to come.”
Dylan stepped to the mat with Michael's assistance and competed in a sparring match against a carefully chosen teenager.
“To watch Dylan give it his all and to see the glow on Dylan's face was priceless,” Rosbarsky said. “I had a mother come up to me and say, 'He filled and broke my heart all at once.' “
Dylan received several trophies.
The honors, Dylan strongly felt, should have been shared with Michael. Made bold by his personal victories and more self-confident in the months he's been taking tae kwon do lessons, Dylan took matters into his own hands.
With his parents' help, Dylan had a special plaque made for Michael. Its brass plate reads: “Most Outstanding Person.”
Michael Graef was humbled by the award.
The past several months with Dylan have been incredible, said the active teen.
“When Mr. Rosbarsky told me he was looking for someone who could be here every week, twice a week to help out, I was irritated at first,” Graef said. “I thought that it would be that much more time out of my already busy week, but the more I learned about Dylan's situation, I stopped feeling like I had to be here and instead, I want to be here.”
Keeping Dylan on his feet and keeping his young charge motivated is physically taxing, sometimes a challenge, but it's never work, he said.
“I care about him a lot,” Michael said. “I think for somebody who by the fact of their disease won't likely live past the age of 20, he's a really happy kid.
“My biggest hope in his journey is that he proves the doctors wrong and that he actually pulls out of it — that's my dream for him.”
Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at (406) 523-5253 or at email@example.com.