‘Hey, my brother, can you give me some money for food and clothing?’ I decided to respond. ‘How about I treat you to a lunch date?’ Replying to a stranger’s message, a man develops an “unlikely friendship.”

“‘Hey, my bro, I was just wondering if you could give me some money.’ My brother, all I ask is some money for food and clothing. ‘Thank you very much, my brother.’

This was the message I received two years ago on Facebook Messenger. ‘Sorry, Brian, I can’t send you money directly, but how about I take you out to lunch and see if I can help?’ I decided to respond to the sender.

‘Can we order McDonald’s, please, my bro?’ he replied.

A few days later, I drove over to Brian’s house to pick him up, and I immediately realised that he had some mental handicap. He was, however, one of the most animated persons I’d ever encountered. Brian sprung out the door, waved, and smiled before running over and giving me a warm handshake as soon as he got close enough.

‘I wasn’t expecting you to show up, my sibling. ‘I appreciate you coming to fetch me.’

Brian’s continual thankfulness, which is always delivered with a huge cheeky smile and a personality trait he’s demonstrated throughout our 2-year relationship, was my first experience with it. I knew I’d met someone significant then, and we headed to McDonald’s.

Courtesy of Jack Keeys

During our lunches, walks, and phone calls, Brian explained that he had grown up in the same little village as me, Paeroa, but that he now resided with his father in the larger city of Hamilton, where I was also living. Brian revealed that he slept every night on a one-seater couch. He said he wanted to work but didn’t know how to apply for employment or where to look. He also mentioned that he was bored and lonely because he didn’t have any pals.

Brian and I collaborated on a résumé for the first time. We discussed his education and preferred subjects, skills, and the type of career he desired. He brought it to a few grocery stores after printing a few copies. Unfortunately, he did not receive any positive responses. After that, I called other potential employers and organisations that help individuals find work, but we were still unsuccessful. I found that getting a job with a learning handicap is exceedingly tricky.

Meanwhile, I paid Brian to assist me with gardening, to clean, and erecting a fence over a few months. However, I wasn’t in a position to provide Brian with jobs or pay for more than a few hours of labour per week on the weekends.

Courtesy of Jack Keeys

Brian was receiving the New Zealand disability allowance, a government-funded programme that sends money into his account every week to help him with his living expenses. I understood the budget was pretty generous in providing Brian with enough money to buy food, pay bills, and even save a little. On the other hand, Brian always appeared to be in financial trouble.

As a result, I asked Brian if I could assist him with budgeting, as I knew he spent a lot of money on fast food and possibly other expenses that we might help him cut.

Courtesy of Jack Keeys

I was surprised to learn that Brian lost over half of his weekly allotment to loan repayments and other direct debits when he shared his spending with me. Brian was perplexed by several payments and had no idea what they were for. He stated that they deduct money from his account every week and that he had no idea how to stop them.

Many of these payments were made under obscure names, and I spent the next six months trying to track down the many entities that were deducting funds from Brian’s account.

Brian was charged 450 per cent interest on a $500 cash loan by one of the cash loan companies. After looking over Brian’s bank transactions, I discovered that he had already made $420 in payments. When I arrived at the company, I noticed that his loan value had not decreased but had climbed to $680 due to the enormous interest. Brian would phone the company every week and ask if he could make a smaller payment, to which the company would agree but then add penalty interest, which Brian didn’t understand.

I considered the corporation had breached its duty of care to Brian and that a loan should not have been granted without the approval of Brian’s caretaker due to his noticeable handicap. They wrote off all interest payments after three visits and chats with the manager, and all Brian had to do was pay the remaining $80, which I delivered to clear the account.

Brian had also been paying a product rental firm for almost 18 months. His total payments on a TV and Playstation, which had a combined retail value of over $1600, had now surpassed $2400. Brian was paying for things he didn’t have and wouldn’t be able to return because a member of his family had taken the product and pawned it for cash. When I called the company, I was told that Brian would have to pay the whole $1600 plus a penalty to cancel the contract. However, after several weeks of phone calls, I was able to negotiate this down to $100, noting that Brian shouldn’t have been legally entitled to sign these contracts and that if he hadn’t, I would look into other options.

A ‘truck-shop’ rental company drove through low-income neighbourhoods signing up unwitting people to product agreements like TVs, phones, and gaming consoles that appeared to be a reasonable price but included rigorous contracts with high-interest payments and multi-year or no-end stipulations. Brian had no idea who this company was or what they were receiving money for at first. I couldn’t find the company on the internet or in the New Zealand company registry. After asking for aid on social media, a buddy of mine eventually identified a URL hidden from search engines and owned by the corporation, along with some basic contact information. I ultimately found down the company’s private owner. Brian had been paying this firm for an 8-month period for a Playstation that had never arrived. Even though he was still charging Brian every month, the business manager claimed he didn’t have Brian’s address. On top of the $800 Brian had already paid for the products, he wanted to charge Brian $400 to cancel the contract. In the end, I was able to persuade the business owner to offer Brian a $400 refund with no additional fees.

Courtesy of Jack Keeys

Brian asked if the two of us could make a TikTok film together around the time of the truck-shop solution. I made a video on our friendship, and he liked it. We didn’t expect much with only a few hundred followers and a couple of previous films, but it was fun to make together and choose the photographs and footage. After a few weeks, though, we were suddenly bombarded with hundreds of thousands of views. The many likes and comments the video received were even more inspiring, which appeared to be almost ten times more than comparable viral films. Brian’s love was flowing in, and we hadn’t asked for anything. We wanted to tell our tale and encourage others to form “unlikely friendships.” Over 1.7 million views, 345,000 likes, and 4,000 comments were received. It was utterly overwhelming and unbelievable.

Our hopes had been wholly exceeded, but we had no idea that this was only the beginning. I received an Instagram message from the producer of Seven Sharp, New Zealand’s Channel One news programme that airs at 7 p.m. every evening after the TikTok video garnered nearly 1 million views. She’d watched my and Brian’s storey on TikTok and asked if they could record a section for their show about it.

Brian didn’t stop smiling for the next week after I informed him. We were both nervous but also excited to tell our experience on television and possibly inspire more people to look out for those in the community who might be in need. Filming took place only a week after the Instagram message, and it was a blast. Brian’s reporter and film team adored him, and it wasn’t long before he was commanding them around! We also utilised the video as an occasion to reach out to people throughout the country to see if anyone was willing to hire Brian.

Courtesy of Jack Keeys
Courtesy of Jack Keeys

The show aired the next day at 7 p.m. on New Zealand’s national television, and we watched it with our friends and family. It felt unusual to see myself on television, and everything seemed bizarre. Brian grinned for another week and began presenting himself as ‘the guy from TV’ to family, friends, and strangers alike.

Brian must have seen our show a hundred times, but it turns out he wasn’t the only one who liked it. The episode became their most popular Facebook storey, with hundreds of thousands of views and tens of thousands of shares, comments, and conversations.

Over the next two weeks, we received five real job offers from all over New Zealand, but one stuck out above the rest. Brian was offered a job with ‘The Greenways Trust,’ a social enterprise in New Zealand’s northwestern region that provides full-time employment to people with various disabilities. Brian would be free to work short days and even take vacations as needed, but he would be splitting and delivering firewood, mowing lawns, and picking kumera (New Zealand red potato). Brian would also have his self-contained cabin with a full ensuite and a breathtaking outlook. His lodging would include all three meals per day, transportation to and from work, and housekeeping assistance. To top it off, he was joining a group of pals who were all participating in social activities, group excursions, and regional special Olympics events.

Courtesy of Jack Keeys
Courtesy of Jack Keeys
Courtesy of Jack Keeys

Brian was ecstatic to be moving, and despite some resistance from his family, he was eventually seated in the passenger seat next to me, on his way to the Greenways Trust. I surprised Brian with a shopping trip up to the Trust and purchased him an entire suitcase full of new clothes to take with him. He claimed that it was the first time he had ever purchased new clothing.

We arrived at Greenways Trust to waves and grins from everyone, and in just ten minutes, I knew it was the perfect location. Brian’s life at the Trust was a significant shift, but he immediately made friends with everyone. Since meeting Brian, I wasn’t bombarded with texts and phone calls for the first time. Brian was no longer in financial distress, unable to eat and clothe himself, and, most importantly, he was no longer lonely.

Courtesy of Jack Keeys
Courtesy of Jack Keeys

After our storey on Seven Sharp drew such a large audience, Brian and I were requested to do not one but two follow-up stories, which aired over the next few weeks. As a result, we were able to publicise the Greenways Trust’s excellent work and share more of our personal stories. We were on national television three times, with one news commentator remarking that Brian had had more coverage on their show than New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern!

Courtesy of Jack Keeys
Courtesy of Jack Keeys

Over the next few months, I received several messages and phone calls from people who had discovered others in their community in similar situations to Brian’s and were now assisting them. People informed me about making new acquaintances, finding new jobs, and starting new businesses. I formed a disability awareness network at the company where I recently started working (KPMG New Zealand), and Brian was invited to appear as the first guest speaker. I’ll be questioning him in front of over 150 people, and I’m confident he’ll make everyone laugh.

From a Facebook message from a stranger to a friendship. From a TikTok video to three national television segments. We’ve learned a lot over the last two years, but if I had to sum it up in one word, it would be compassion.”

Courtesy of Jack Keeys
Courtesy of Jack Keeys

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