‘Hey my bro, can I have money for food and clothes?’ I decided to respond. ‘How about I take you out to lunch?’: Man discovers ‘unlikely friendship’ replying to stranger’s message

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“‘Hey my bro, I’m just wondering if I could have some money, my bro. I just want the money for some food and clothes, my bro. Thank you, my bro.’

This was the message I received through Facebook messenger 2 years ago. I decided to reply to the sender, ‘Sorry, Brian, I can’t send you money directly, but how about I take you out for lunch and figure out if I can help?’

His reply, ‘Can we get McDonald’s please, my bro?’

I drove over to pick-up Brian from his house a few days later and upon picking him up, I recognized he had some type of mental disability. However, he was one of the bubbliest people I had ever met. Brian came jumping out of the door, waved at me, and smiled before bounding over and giving me a very enthusiastic handshake as soon as he reached me.

‘I didn’t think you’d actually come, my bro. Thank you so much for coming to get me.’

This was my first experience of Brian’s constant gratitude, which is always delivered with a big cheeky smile and a personality trait he’s displayed throughout our 2-year relationship. At that point, I knew I’d met a pretty special guy, and we made our way to McDonald’s.

Courtesy of Jack Keeys

Over our subsequent lunches, walks, and phone conversations, Brian explained he had grown up in the same small town as me, Paeroa, but now lived with his dad in the larger city, Hamilton, where I also now lived. Brian shared he slept on a one-seater couch each night. He told me he wanted to work, but didn’t know how to apply for jobs or where he could get work. He also shared he didn’t have friends and felt very bored and lonely.

The first thing Brian and I did together was make a resume. We spoke about his schooling and his favorite subjects, his skills, and the type of job he wanted. I printed out a few copies, and he took it to some grocery stores. Unfortunately, he didn’t get any successful responses. After this, I made several calls to potential employers and organizations that support people with finding work – but still, we were unsuccessful. I realized finding work as an individual with a learning disability can be extremely challenging.

In the meantime, I paid Brian to help me over a few months with gardening, cleaning, and building a fence. However, I wasn’t in a position to be able to provide Brian with the jobs or payment for more work than a few hours a week over the weekend.

Courtesy of Jack Keeys

Brian was on the New Zealand disability allowance, a scheme that provides a weekly transfer of money into his account from the government to support him with his living costs. I knew the value of the allowance was relatively generous in being able to provide Brian with the income to purchase food, pay bills, and even save a little. However, Brian always appeared to be struggling financially.

As a result, I asked Brian if I could help him with some budgeting, as I knew he spent quite a lot of money on fast-food, and perhaps some other costs which we could help to reduce.

Courtesy of Jack Keeys

Brian shared his spending with me, and I was shocked to find he was losing over half of his weekly allowance to loan repayments and other direct debits. Brian himself was quite confused about some of the payments and didn’t know what they were. He just said they come out of his account every week and he didn’t know how to stop them.

A lot of these payments were made under very inconspicuous names, and I spent the following 6 months chasing down the various organizations that were debiting money from Brian’s account.

This included a cash loan company that was charging Brian 450% interest on a $500 cash loan. Going through Brian’s bank statements, I calculated he had already made $420 of repayments. Upon visiting the company, I discovered his loan value had not gone down but had actually increased to $680 because of the massive interest. Each week, Brian would call the company and ask if he could make a slightly smaller repayment, to which the company would say yes but then charge penalty interest, which Brian didn’t understand.

I believed the company was being negligent in a duty of care to Brian, and because of his obvious disability, should not have given a loan without caregiver consent. After three visits and conversations with the manager, they wrote off all interest payments and just required Brian to pay the final $80, which I paid to settle the account.

There was also a product rental company Brian had been paying for over 18 months. His total payments already totaled over $2400 for a TV and Playstation, which had a combined retail value of approximately $1600. A member of his family had taken the product and pawned it for cash, so Brian was paying for products he didn’t have and would not be able to return. When I called the company, we were advised Brian would have to pay the full $1600 to cancel the contract, plus a penalty fee. However, after multiple phone calls over several weeks, I managed to negotiate this down to $100, again citing Brian shouldn’t have been legally able to sign these contracts and that otherwise, I would explore options to take further action.

There was a ‘truck-shop’ rental company that drives around low socio-economic areas and signs up unknowing individuals to product deals such as TVs, phones, and gaming consoles that seem like a good deal, but include strict contracts with high-interest payments and multi-year or no-end clauses. Brian initially didn’t know who this company was and what they were taking money for. I couldn’t track down the company online or through the New Zealand companies register. Eventually, after reaching out to social media for help, a friend of mine discovered a URL hidden from search engines and owned by the company, with some basic contact details. I eventually tracked down the private owner of the company. It turned out Brian had been paying this company for 8 months for a Playstation that was never delivered. The business manager stated he didn’t have Brian’s address – despite the fact he had still been charging Brian every month. He wanted to charge Brian $400 to cancel the contract, on top of the $800 Brian had already paid for the products. Eventually, I actually managed to negotiate with the business owner to give Brian a $400 refund with no additional charges.

Courtesy of Jack Keeys

It was around the time of the truck-shop solution that Brian asked if the two of us could make a TikTok video together. I decided to make a video about our friendship, and he loved it. With only a few hundred followers and a couple of previous videos, we didn’t expect much would come of it, but it was fun to make together and choose the pictures and video. However, after a few weeks, we suddenly had hundreds of thousands of views. What was more empowering, was the massive percentage of likes and comments the video was getting, which seemed to be over 10 times more interaction than other viral videos were getting. Love was pouring in for Brian, and we didn’t ask for anything. We just wanted to share our story and inspire more ‘unlikely friendships.’ We ended up receiving over 1.7 million views, 345,000 likes, and 4,000 comments. It was extremely overwhelming and quite unbelievable.

Our expectations had been absolutely blown away, but little did we know, this was just the beginning. After about 6 weeks, when the TikTok video had reached almost 1 million views, I received an Instagram message from the producer of Seven Sharp, New Zealand’s Channel One news program airing at 7 p.m. each weeknight. She had seen the TikTok and asked if they could film a segment for their show to talk about my and Brian’s story.

When I told Brian, I don’t think he stopped smiling for the next week. We were both very nervous, but also very excited to be able to share our story on TV, and also hopefully inspire more people to look out for those in the community who may be in need. Filming happened just a week after the Instagram message, and it was a lot of fun. The reporter and film crew absolutely loved Brian, and it wasn’t long before Brian was ordering them around himself! We also used the filming as an opportunity to reach out to the country and see if there was anyone willing to offer Brian a job.

Courtesy of Jack Keeys
Courtesy of Jack Keeys

The show aired at 7 p.m. on New Zealand’s national TV the following day, and we watched it together alongside our friends and family. It was a very strange feeling watching myself on TV, and it all seemed quite surreal. Brian smiled for another full week, and started introducing himself to family, friends, and strangers alike as ‘the guy from TV.’

Brian must have watched our episode at least 100 times, but it turned out he wasn’t the only one enjoying it. The segment ended up being the most popular story they had posted on Facebook, receiving hundreds of thousands of views, and again, tens of thousands of shares, comments, and interactions.

We received five genuine job offers throughout New Zealand over the following two weeks, but one stood right above the rest. Brian was offered a job at ‘The Greenways Trust,’ a social enterprise in the North of New Zealand, which provided full-time employment to people with various disabilities. Brian would be able to work short days and even take time off whenever he wanted, but would be working with splitting and delivering firewood, mowing lawns, and picking kumera (New Zealand red potato). Not only that, but Brian would have his very own self-contained cabin, with a full ensuite and an amazing view. His accommodation would include all three meals a day, transport to and from work, and help with cleaning. To top it all off, he was joining a community of friends who all were involved in social activities, group trips, and events such as regional special Olympics.

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

Brian was beyond excited to move, and though some of his family required quite a bit of convincing, eventually Brian was sitting in the passenger seat next to me, on his way to the Greenways Trust. On the way up to the Trust, I took Brian on a surprise shopping spree and bought him a whole suitcase of new clothes to take with him. He said it was the first time he had ever bought brand new clothes.

We drove into Greenways Trust to waves and smiles from everyone there, and after being there for ten minutes, I knew it was the perfect place. Life at the Trust was quite a big lifestyle change for Brian, but he quickly became friends with everyone. For the first time since I’d met Brian, I didn’t receive constant messages and calls anymore. Brian was no longer struggling financially, no longer struggling to feed and clothe himself, but most importantly, Brian was no longer lonely.

Courtesy of Jack Keeys
Courtesy of Jack Keeys

After the significant audience our story attracted on Seven Sharp, Brian and I were asked to do not one but two follow-up stories which aired over the following weeks. This meant we were able to spread the great work the Greenways Trust was doing, as well as share more of our personal stories. We ended up on national TV three times, and one news commenter noted Brian had been given more airtime on their show than the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern!

Courtesy of Jack Keeys
Courtesy of Jack Keeys

Over the following months, I received several messages and calls from people who had found others in their community suffering circumstances such as Brian, they were now helping. I was told stories of people who had made new friends, new employment opportunities, and whole new initiatives. At the company I recently started working at (KPMG New Zealand), I launched a disability awareness network to which Brian has been invited as the first guest speaker. I’ll be asking him questions in front of over 150 people, and I’m sure he’ll leave everyone giggling.

From a stranger’s Facebook message to a friendship. From a TikTok video to three segments on national TV. The past 2 years have taught us a lot, but if I had to sum it up in a single word, it would be compassion.”

Courtesy of Jack Keeys
Courtesy of Jack Keeys

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jack Keeys of Paeroa, New Zealand. You can follow his journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story with us, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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