It all started at a kitchen table.
At the time, the idea was simple — scheduled walks every week, here, a regular movie night, there. But before they knew it, Pat Leseman and Rosemary Fagrelius were about to embark on a journey that promised to not only change the lives of their children, but also make a deep impact in the community around them.
As they sat at that kitchen table, nearly a decade ago, Leseman and Fagrelius thought something needed to be done. They were both mothers to children with disabilities and both frustrated with the lack of options for their two boys, Michael and John. Options to meet other people their age, create new friendships and, frankly, have a social life just weren’t available in the Twin Cities — at least not for teens and adults with disabilities.
“It started out as a necessity,” Leseman said. “It really did. There just wasn’t anything else out there, nothing that was age appropriate.”
What began as a few weekly activities for their two boys, soon blossomed into a dream come true for families all over the Twin Cities. In 2002, the Highland Friendship Club was born. It was a place where teens and young adults with disabilities could come to meet new people, for activities that suited their age group and best of all, a place where they could be social and just be themselves.
It’s an opportunity for them to have their own haven, away from the dependency of family, where they could enjoy just being your run-of-the-mill teenager or 20-something — a place that was their own.
“He’s there because it’s a social event. It’s an opportunity for him to be with his buddies and not be Velcroed to us,” Leseman said.
On Saturday, the club gathered at Saxon Lanes in Little Canada, Minn. for the fourth annual Lanes for Friendship event, a bowling tournament boasting tons of prizes, laughs and yes, even an All-Star. Big-name supporters like Joe Mauer and the Golden Gophers basketball coach Tubby Smith were there to show their dedication to a great organization.
Though, truth be told, the excitement seen on the bowlers’ faces in Lane 15, after a fellow member rolled their first strike, captured my attention more than any super star athlete ever could.
Leseman said it best, perhaps, when trying to describe what the Highland Friendship Club is all about — “You just have to experience it.” It’s true. The sights seen at a club event are indescribable and hit you in a spot where words don’t seem to suffice. It’s completely special and yet, perfectly typical at the same time.
It’s no wonder that Fagrelius still can’t believe a casual conversation at a kitchen table has led to this.
“We kind of sit back every once in a while and look back and go, ‘You know, we just started off as just this need and now look at it,'” she said. “Seeing the families that it’s affected, that’s the best part.”
“We never lose the awe of it,” Leseman added. “The moment I lose that, I think I’ll have to step down or something. But that will never happen.”
With nearly 200 members — plus a small staff and dozens of great volunteers — the Highland Friendship Club is, simply stated, changing lives.
There’s the life of their first employee, Katie Thune, who says her profession is a special education teacher but her passion and her life’s career is being with the Highland Friendship Club. Not only did the club lead her to a new level in her career, but it led her to her future husband, who was a fellow staff member.
For Renee Pritzker’s 25-year-old son, Jake, the club really gave him a chance at his own life.
“He sees his friends and he has a life, and he’s growing and volunteering in the community,” she said. “It really makes him feel good about himself and the contributions that he can make to his community. He’s getting to know people without his family always present.”
Or take the life of 32-year-old Emily Colaizy. Before becoming a member of the friendship club, she said she was painfully shy and mostly hung out with her family. Not that quality time with her loving relatives was terrible, but she, like anyone else, wanted other options for her free time.
Her mother saw that opportunity when she read about this great little club in St. Paul. It was tough for Colaizy at first, she admitted, being more of an introvert, but before long she found a level of comfort and a level of fulfillment in these Highland friends, and it opened up a world of possibilities.
Five years later, not only is she more outgoing and a bit of a social butterfly, but she’s made friends that will last a lifetime, and has even become something of a leader and mentor for the younger members to look up to.
“It’s been the greatest five years of my life,” she said, in between high fives with friends and hugs from her extended Club family. “I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Colaizy said three days out of the week she’s able to participate in the group’s activities, ranging from cooking courses to art classes, plus music, fitness and even dances. It’s made her grow, not only in her shy personality but in her overall development of life.
“It has really, really changed my life, it has,” she said. “Like I said, before this club, I’d sit around at home doing nothing hardly. But now, I go out to these things and I have fun. What this club has done for me, it’s amazing. It’s truly amazing.”
Leseman and Fagrelius said they wish they could say they had this kind of life changing in mind when they came up with the idea of a club, but the truth is, what’s happened in the eight years since the group’s inception has been truly inspiring and surprising.
For more information about the Highland Friendship Club, head to its website.
Sara Boyd is a web producer and columnist at WCCO.COM.