It was on July 9, 2012, that Matt Phelps and Anthony Brasmeister lined up and shot their two friends, Paul Damphier and Jonathan DeJesus.
Their bodies were found in a soybean field behind Phelps’ house about 10 days later. Brasmeister, 16, and Phelps, 15 at the time of the murder, confessed to killing their friends and were sentenced to 25 years to life and 15 years to life, respectively. Damphier was 16 and DeJesus was 13.
Casey Martin, 26, was a cousin of Damphier. At the time of the murders, he had recently lost his grandmother and his 5-year-old son, Xavier, to sickness. Losing his cousin was too much to bear, too soon. He stayed in his room for days. But his friends TJ Czeski, John Sumpter and Matt Moller, and the cousin whom he considers a brother, Calvin Martin, went to him and helped him recover, bit by bit.
“You can either crumble or hide in your room for the rest of your life,” Casey Martin explained, “or you can turn it all into positive energy and honor them by fulfilling your goals.”
And that was what Casey and his friends chose to do.
In a matter of weeks after the bodies were found, the friends formed Wishful Thinking, whose goal was to provide programs for the kids in the community and even the adults so they could make the right choices in life and most of all, to prevent them from losing focus and ending up using drugs or doing something worse. The other hope was to bring people together to defuse misunderstandings and help create a better community.
The five of them were all born and raised in Amsterdam. They all grew up knowing each other, hanging out with each other, and being there for each other. Word of mouth spread that they were forming a 3-on-3 Stop the Violence basketball tournament and 42 teams signed up. With the money they raised at the tournament, they helped renovate the Clara S. Bacon School gym.
They eventually started offering programs for the kids who would attend, even helping to run a six-week summer day camp for 4- to 12-year-olds at the school. Last year, they started a summer basketball league, which included 100 players across 11 teams in sixth through 12th grades. This year, for the summer league, which will start June 30 and continue until Aug. 9 at the outside basketball courts at Lynch Middle School, 296 kids will be participating, including girls teams. A total of 150 games are scheduled.
Wishful Thinking moved into its new space at the Creative Connections Arts Center this March. The city has provided them with the space and equipment. The group also credits people like Montgomery County Executive Matthew Ossenfort for providing the computers and the other equipment it needed. The space has been used as a place for local kids to seek help with their homework, and local teachers have used the space to help tutor students, as well.
“One of the goals is to change the culture of Amsterdam,” Casey Martin explained. The organizers want Amsterdam to embrace its youth and diversity, and for folks in the city to stop thinking it’s 1965 rather than 2014.
“You can’t raise kids with a cellphone the same way you raised my grandfather,” Moller said.
Each member has a role in the organization to help it reach its maximum potential. For example, Moller, 31, is a financial analyst at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, and also an accountant. At Wishful Thinking, he is chief financial officer and also helps in the tutoring programs.
Sumpter, 29, is a personal trainer at Alpin Haus, as is Calvin Martin, 25, who also works at Liberty ARC, caring for people with disabilities. They both lead workouts with the kids and teach them about fitness. Casey Martin has always been the artistic one. He has designed all of the clothing at Wishful Thinking, including the logo on its shirts, which is a thought bubble. They’ve so far raised $10,000 just from selling the clothes that Casey had designed. The money is funneled back into their programs and into buying what they need.
The group is now raising money for a rec center in Amsterdam. They hope to raise $1 million in 18 months, though so far they’ve raised only about $15,000.
Czeski, 26, is the chief operating officer. He quit his job at State Farm to devote all his time into the founding of Wishful Thinking when it was first started. He now works as a sales representative at W.B. Mason, but considers what he does at Wishful Thinking vital.
“It’s been the most satisfying thing I’ve done in my life,” he said.
Paintings of Damphier and DeJesus created by artist and friend Emily Gavry are placed in the office as a reminder.
“It’s hard to picture your cousin lying there like that,” Calvin Martin said as he recounted those days that the two boys’ bodies lying in the field, after their disappearance was reported but before their bodies were recovered. Eventually, the tears escape and slip down his face.
“We know we will never see them,” he said as he slowly recovered.
“But the way we feel we can give them a hug again and honor them is through working with these kids,” Casey Martin added.