TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) — For one afternoon, Matt Lowe and Justin Kelley were just teenage boys.
They played video games, eyes transfixed on the screen, their wheelchairs side by side as their hands clutched game controllers.
Matt, 14, was showing Justin, 15, how to play a Halo 3 mini-game called Jenga Tower.
"Don't shoot. That's not how you play the game," Matt said.
Matt pushed a button on his wheelchair to recline and get more comfortable, as Justin said: "I think I'm winning."
In an hour, Justin would have to make the two-hour ride from Matt's Jerome home back to Nampa. These treasured visits could be more frequent if Matt could travel easily, and their two families hope donations will help them buy a van Matt can ride in.
During Justin's July 19 visit, Matt's older sister, Shanna, 19, sat on Matt's bed with Justin's brother, Chris, 20. Matt's baseball cap collection hung above them, and Halo Reach and Angry Birds posters on one wall. A nightstand was stacked with games like Max Payne 3 and Gears of War 3.
Next to Matt's bed was a letter Justin wrote to Matt after the two returned to their separate homes after a McCall camp in June.
"Matt, I have sent you an extra headset. Hope it will come in handy. I have a lot of fun playing Xbox Live with you. Glad I went to camp and met you and now we are friends," Justin wrote.
The boys met at the Muscular Dystrophy Association camp, a weeklong camp for children with neuromuscular diseases.
Matt and Justin have Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic condition caused by an absence of dystrophin, a protein that helps keep muscle cells intact. Symptoms emerge in early childhood; the disease primarily affects boys, but in rare cases it affects girls.
Muscle weakness is one the first symptoms and can begin as early as age 3. It first affects the muscles of the hips, pelvic area, thighs and shoulders — then later the skeletal muscles in the arms, legs and trunk, and by the early teens, the heart and respiratory muscles.
Justin's father, Doug, remembers thinking that his son was just a late bloomer.
At 4 years old, Justin was having a hard time getting up and running. Then, his muscles started swelling up.
"They really want to run and play sports, but they can't," Doug Kelley said.
The Kelleys moved to Idaho about a year ago from California, and the Idaho MDA soon contacted them with an invitation to this summer's camp.
Doug describes Justin as introverted, somebody who doesn't like to be the center of attention. He prefers to stay home on most days. Justin didn't even want to go to MDA camp, and it was hard for Doug to send him. But Doug made him go anyway, stipulating that Chris attend as a counselor.
When Justin returned from camp, Doug and his wife, Tracey, said their usually quiet boy couldn't stop talking about his new friend Matt.
"My boy wants to get up and hang out with Matt," Doug said.
In the past, children with DMD were not expected to survive past their teen years. But according to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, due to advances in cardiac and respiratory care it's become common for those with DMD to live into their 30s.
As a toddler, Matt was really happy, said his mother, Alauna Block, as she pointed to a photo of her son's round, smiling face.
"When they go in the wheelchair, they don't want to be exposed to the world," Block said.
Alauna recalled a year when the family learned, shortly after picking up Matt from camp, that a fellow camper and friend had died during his ride home from camp.
Alauna said she reminds her son that on any day, anyone can die.
"We just enjoy what moments we have to spend," she said. "I just take it one day at a time."
When Matt underwent surgery for scoliosis in 2011, Alauna said, he told her when he woke up: "Mom, I didn't die."
She often asks Matt what he thinks about his situation. He has simply told her, " 'I'll be all right. ... I'm just living in the here and now,' " she said.
Any time the Kelleys intend to visit Matt, Doug said, Justin wakes right up and doesn't mind the long ride.
"They open up when they are with each other," Alauna said. "So far, friendships are hard to come by ... they connect on a different level."
When Justin visits, it's a time for the two friends to hang out, chat, play video games and go to a restaurant together. It's not every day that Matt gets the opportunity to leave his house.
In May, Alauna had to get rid of her van because it was developing mechanical problems and the 8-foot metal ramp she attached was so steep and dangerous she feared Matt would fall over while being loaded. Matt often has doctor's appointments in Boise, and more than once Alauna was afraid the van would break down between Boise and Jerome.
To get to camp this year, Matt used a rental van donated by Access Vans, an adaptive vehicle services company in Boise.
But there are many times that Matt and his family would just like to be able to go to the store or a restaurant safely and easily.
A Twin Falls woman gave them a van that belonged to her sister who had cerebral palsy and died recently.
"It was really, really neat she would do that," Alauna said.
But the older van doesn't completely fit Matt's needs — he has to recline to get in, and his head hits the top of the van when inside.
On July 4, Justin surprised Matt with a visit, the first since camp. They went in Justin's van to lunch at Wendy's. It was the first time Matt had been out of the house since camp. Then, Justin came back a few weeks later; that time Matt got to go to Walmart and Golden Corral. Doug said he looked in his rearview mirror and both boys were grinning.
"We take it for granted that we can come and go as we please," Doug said. Not so for Justin and Matt.
The two families are trying to raise money to purchase a van that would fit all Matt's needs. An account was opened at Pioneer Federal Credit Union called "Operation Matt Mobile." A website (www.operationmattmobile.org) shares Matt's story and is a place to make online donations.Comment on this story
If Matt's parents can buy a van, he'll be able to leave his house to go to the store and visit Justin in Nampa.
"(Justin) literally is so excited to do something for his friend because it's going to be life-changing for him, too," Doug said.
Why are they such good friends?
"We like the same things," Matt said. Justin pursed his lips like he was thinking about the question, but he didn't answer.
Perhaps the answer was in the way they trash-talked while playing video games. Two wheelchairs, no inhibitions.
"It's really magical between the kids," Doug said.