At Friendship Circle, you’ve always got a friend | Hamer

Sometimes random encounters with strangers can totally change our lives.

Sometimes random encounters with strangers can totally change our lives.

Four years ago, in Mercerdale Park, my daughter-in-law Effie Parks was pushing my grandson Ford Parks around in his wheelchair. He has an extremely rare genetic disorder and is unable to walk.

On most such outings, Effie knew, people would avoid her and Ford. Parents would tell their kids to look away, don’t stare, move along.

But on this day, Effie recalls, a family on the path came straight up to them. The mother and her kids immediately started engaging with Ford, talking to him, and having fun.

Effie was astonished. That had never happened before. She was profoundly moved, and still tears up when she recalls the encounter. “That meeting in the park changed my life,” she says.

The family was the Mezistranos: Joel, Hoda and their 3 sons — Daniel, Levi and Avi. Hoda told Effie about Friendship Circle (, a remarkable organization that pairs disabled kids with high school students who become “buddies” and spend hours together. The Mezistrano family has long supported this extraordinary MI non-profit.

The family was honored last week at the Friendship Circle’s annual gala at the MI Community and Events Center.

Ford couldn’t be at the gala this year, nor could his parents. But his grandmother and I were there and sat at the Mezistranos’ table.

In powerful remarks from the podium, Hoda Mezistrano said:

“Look around the room. Friendship Circle is an extension of that incredible family, community and support system. An organization dedicated to acceptance and inclusion.

“To arrive at a Friendship Circle program and witness a roomful of warmth, positivity and connection is truly amazing. Like all friendships, they take time and commitment. And the teen volunteers, like our boys, are all in!

“The real benefit of the Friendship Circle extends well beyond any program and is rooted in the most basic of universal needs and is the easiest thing to share: It’s kindness.

“Regardless of what one does, where one lives, who one loves, or how one votes, kindness matters. Feeling like you belong matters. And the Friendship Circle embodies it, models it, and instills it in everyone who participates.”

Hoda thanked Rabbi Elazar Bogolmilsky and his wife Esther, who started Friendship Circle in 2004. The nearly 20 high school students who are currently “buddies” with disabled kids paraded in a boisterous line around the room, to a standing ovation. Some took the stage with their disabled young partners, a few of whom also spoke.

But Hoda added: “As big and robust as the program is, there are literally dozens of kids and families who are on a waiting list. The good news is that we have the chance tonight to increase the Friendship Circle’s capacity through our support.”

She concluded: “And ultimately, to enable more families to know friendship, to experience kindness, and to feel a sense of belonging….This room is full of kindness. We invite you to join us to dig deep and give big.”

That was a “pitch” for donations, of course, and it worked. The evening brought in nearly $700,000 through a silent auction, a live auction, paddle raising and other major donations.

Avi Mezistrano, 14, who is transitioning from Jewish Day School to MI High School this fall, took the podium and talked about how meeting Ford had made a difference in both of their lives. Avi has been Ford’s “hero” as Friendship Circle paired them together, as it has with dozens of high school students and children with disabilities.

Ford and Avi became fast friends. Ford had a photo of Avi on the kitchen refrigerator. They saw each other on Sundays at the MICEC and other venues. They often met at Ford’s house where they would spend hours together just hanging out or taking walks (Ford in his wheelchair) around the neighborhood. As Avi told the gala crowd:

“Every Sunday I got the chance to better someone’s life and create unique relationships with kids who don’t normally get the chance to make friends on their own. … I really enjoy my time with all of the buddies. And I especially enjoy my time with Ford and playing at his home where we got to do his favorite things. We both made a difference in each other’s lives.”

And to think it all started with a walk in the park.

John Hamer is a former editorial writer and columnist for The Seattle Times and co-founder of the Washington News Council. He and his wife, Mariana Parks, are Ford’s grandparents and have lived together on the island for almost 25 years. Email