Florian Hall was filled to the brim last Sunday evening as people from the neighborhood — some in wheelchairs, some on two feet, some with walkers — swirled around the dance floor as Tony Funches of “The Platters” and Joe Peters passed around the microphone, encouraging people to belt out the chorus for “Sweet Caroline.”
The mood was upbeat and it helped that the Red Sox were about to take the field for what turned out to be the decisive World Series game. But the Friendship Social, a biannual event, was more about the Bostonians in the room— people of all ages and abilities who look forward to this inclusive opportunity to socialize.
The idea for the Friendship Social was born a decade ago with a simple hello. Dennis Walsh, a Dorchester native who now lives near St. Brendan’s parish, was taking a lunchtime walk when he struck up a conversation with John “Jack” Quinn. When it was time for Walsh to return to work, Quinn thanked him for taking the time to talk to him; Walsh was stunned that someone would thank him for having a simple conversation.
In the months that followed, Walsh visited Quinn in the Standish Village assisted living community where he lived alone, watching in delight as Quinn developed a relationship with Doris Bates, another resident in the building, and eventually married her. Walsh then began visiting people in group homes and day programs, such as the United Cerebral Palsy of Boston (UCP), recognizing more and more with each visit the isolation that people in these programs, often those with severe disabilities, felt.
“Many people with disabilities, many of those folks, some of them might work, but there’s a percentage of them that basically go to day programs and return back home to sometimes an empty apartment,” Walsh said. “So, Boston needed something so everybody could have a chance to go out and enjoy themselves, and we forget about that. A lot of people never get the chance to dance.”
With the help of friends and his union— the Utility Workers’ Union of America, AFL-CIO Local 369 and its retirees group— Walsh decided to take matters into his own hands and create the opportunity in his own backyard. He raised money to create a “unique” event where anyone and everyone can socialize, share a meal, and dance, providing “for a lot of people that otherwise wouldn’t have gone out.”
“It’s all about socializing,” Walsh said. “Everybody should have a chance to go out and dance, and everybody should have a chance to have fun.”
In the years that followed, the Friendship Social has grown as Walsh pulled in more volunteers and attendees with each year. This year the number reached over 400, and even though Walsh wasn’t physically at the event — a rare occurrence involving a family vacation — everything ran like clockwork.
This didn’t surprise Paul Barry, a volunteer who has been involved with the event since its launch. He explained that the event “takes on a life of its own” because of the solid foundation that Walsh has put down over the years. “Dennis has so many volunteers like myself who are happy to do this because it gives us a chance to interacts with our friends and new friends too,” he said. To Barry, the Friendship Social is “six degrees of Dennis,” people that he finds through work, the community, or even just life, and draws into the experience.
Jane McAlearney, a resident of Merrimack, New Hampshire, is one of the people that Walsh has found through life, in this case five years ago when he was putting up pamphlets for the social.
“You look like a perfect candidate to help me out,” McAlearney recalls Walsh saying. Blown away by Walsh’s “good soul,” and the importance of an event like this, McAlearney was ready to participate however she could. “These are kids that time forgot, these are kids that people have forgotten about, and a lot of them don’t see their families, so this is their family,” McAlearney said. “So to do something like this, I’m making my way to heaven.”
Jeff Burnieka of South Boston noted that the social “really puts your life in perspective.” Burnieka has cerebral palsy and has volunteered with the event for the past three years, grateful to see “people forget about their disabilities” for one night. “It makes me feel so fortunate because I live alone in my own apartment and I count myself so fortunate to go to an event like this. It really opens my eyes that there are a lot worse people out there,” he said.
Burnieka also expressed his admiration for Walsh’s dedication to the Friendship Social, a commitment that became clearer when Walsh’s voice came through the speakers and volunteers and attendees alike cheered, an impressive testament to the impact that he continues to have on the lives of others.
This involvement, and the resulting impact, is Walsh’s goal. He ties it into his Catholic faith, noting that “as much turmoil as is going on in the world, nothing can stop us as individuals from making a difference.”
Walsh plans on continuing making that difference with each Friendship Social, hoping that each one will grow in size and programming. “This is really the definition of a grassroots events that came along on its own agenda simply by me saying hi to someone and continuing that,” Walsh said. “We don’t know all of the answers to life, but one of the answers is definitely to help others.”