Imagine a world without friendship. No one to meet up with for dinner or a cup of coffee. No one to chat with on the phone. No one to make you laugh.
For one group of people, that would be reality if not for a woman making a difference, helping connect people who can't reach out for themselves.
“I remember him coming home from the hospital and he had an oxygen tent over his crib,” recalled Maureen Browning.
That was one of Maureen's first memories of her brother Dean. From that day, they've had the usual ups and downs most brothers and sisters have – with one exception.
Born with Down Syndrome, Dean stayed at home - a rarity for the time because many Down's babies were given up at birth or institutionalized.
But while their family looked different than most, Dean's disability was never a reason for him to sit on the sidelines.
“He wasn't left out. I felt bad that sometimes he was ridiculed by thoughtless people and I felt bad about that, but I don’t think we ever left him out of much,” said Maureen.
A life filled with laughter, hugs and one more thing – high fives.
“Deano's always done high fives,” said Maureen. "I think it's a physical reassurance that someone was always there."
Taking care of Dean was never a burden. It was a life changing adventure.
"Deano's been on many first dates with me - and many were my last dates," said Maureen.
"I didn't know anything about Deano,” laughs Robert Browning, Maureen’s husband. “I'd never met her brother before.”
"Oh about, 45 minutes later he came out with Deano - arm in arm - best buddies. So he passed the test,” said Maureen.
Without even knowing, Dean became the family lynchpin.
"Deano is like the glue that holds us all together,” said Maureen. “I can't imagine life without him, really."
As much as the family adores Dean, they can't be everything for him. As he got older, his world became smaller, running out of people to meet and things to do.
So Maureen decided to do something about that. She started organizing events for Dean and his friends. What started out as 30 or 40 people grew to hundreds. She calls it “Friendship Adventures.”
“It's that huge need that I think we all have that they don't get a lot of - the personal attention, the touching, the hugging, the being able to express themselves,” said Maureen. “It just kind of warms you from the inside out.”
Without these adventures, some would be cut off from the world. Some even struggle with little or no human contact.
"What does make me sad is when you meet some of these folks that are neglected, “ said Maureen. “Many of these folks, the older ones, were possibly given up at birth and their living situation isn't very good. They don't have the support, and they're virtually penniless and can’t afford a lot.
Spend a little time around these faces, and volunteers quickly learn lessons little brother Dean taught his big sister years ago.
"Just refreshing people to be around - no baggage. We are who we are. We enjoy life and we appreciate being here,” said Roy, volunteer.
"Everything is just a smile, a handshake, a high five or a hug. Any new person who comes in they just embrace them with just love,” said Katie Browning.
"It's absolutely life-changing,” said Maureen.
What started as a sister's attempt to find her brother friendship has grown into so much more.
"He inspired us to start Friendship Adventures for not only him, but people like him, to give them a better life,” said Maureen.
They say you can pick your friends, but you can't pick your family. In this case, they're one in the same.
Last year Friendship Adventures organized almost 45 different events, from baseball games to formal dances. For more information, go to FriendshipAdventures.org.
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