See more of the story

On a recent afternoon following their "Fit With Friends" exercise session at Falcon Heights United Church of Christ, members of the Highland Friendship Club sat around tables eating bag lunches and discussing what club activities they enjoy the most.

"Dance party, line dance, Zumba, karaoke, bingo," Maren Anderson said.

"Game night, cooking," Kari Anderson added.

Others chimed in with their favorites: music, bowling, Scouts, Fit With Friends, Market to Table excursions.

"All of the above!" said Zinash "Zinni" Tanzer Tragatsch.

"There's a lot of fun stuff going on here," Holly Mandara said.

Mandara and her daughter, Paz, have been attending activities at the club, a social organization for people with developmental disabilities, for about six years.

"You feel normal when you're here, because everybody has something going on," Holly said. "None of us is disabled — we're differently-abled."

"Who wants to wear that title, just because your body doesn't work the way it was designed to?" Paz said. "Some people, they feel it makes them less than."

Highland Friendship Club member Maren Anderson and staffer Mary Troullier visit the Como Zoo.
Highland Friendship Club member Maren Anderson and staffer Mary Troullier visit the Como Zoo.

We all need friends

The club holds about 40 activities a week, some on Zoom and others at sites around the metro area. In addition to the ones members mentioned at lunch, they include music and art classes, theater performances, book clubs, filmmaking, hiking and Friday night hangouts.

"The activities, in my mind, are secondary," Pat Leseman said. "We're really about relationships."

"We all need friends," Rosemary Fagreliussaid.

That was the reason the club was organized, when Leseman and Fagrelius, both of St. Paul, founded it in 2002.

The two had known each other since their sons, John and Mike, "were in car seats." John and Mike are now 40 and 39, respectively.

Both sons have developmental disabilities. When they were in elementary school, they were included in activities and stayed busy. But that changed in junior high school; social connections dwindled because they couldn't keep up in sports or after-school activities.

"Then, after high school, everything fell off the table," Leseman said.

Their sons were left with few friends. "We had to find something that's for them," Fagrelius said.

They checked out day programs for adults with disabilities, but the ones they saw they didn't involve much in the way of activities.

"Rose and I were literally at our kitchen table," discussing possible solutions, Leseman said.

Highland Friendship Club member Joseph Nielsen tries out the climbing wall at Vertical Endeavors in St. Paul.
Highland Friendship Club member Joseph Nielsen tries out the climbing wall at Vertical Endeavors in St. Paul.

It started with walks

In 2001, they organized a walking group for their sons and a few of their friends. "On a Saturday morning, we would just walk the neighborhood," Fagrelius said.

The young people enjoyed spending time together. Their activities grew the following year as word spread to other parents in search of such programs. Leseman and Fagrelius discovered there were many other families like theirs. Membership and programming expanded.

Leseman and Fagrelius set up events at various places around the St. Paul area, including schools, the Jewish Community Center and Falcon Heights United Church of Christ.

"That's the true value of the Highland Friendship Club — they're not isolated in one location," Fagrelius said.They came across a nonprofit booster club about to go out of business. They absorbed that group, changing its name to the Highland Friendship Club. As they progressed, they were helped by grants from the City of St. Paul, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Schulze Family Foundation, the Otto Bremer Trust and others.

Former Minnesota Twin Joe Mauer, a longtime family friend, pledged proceeds from KSTP-TV sports anchor Joe Schmit's children's book about him titled "The Right Thing to Do: The Joe Mauer Story," a story about how Joe, as a popular and talented boy, made a point of welcoming kids who were socially excluded.

"Our community really supports our organization," Fagrelius said.

Members now number more than 250, ranging in age from teenagers to people in their 50s and up. A Member Advisory Committee lets members have input on planned activities. "They want to share and they want experiences," Fagrelius said.

One thing they've asked for are field trips. So the organization has eight trips scheduled this year to various places around Minnesota.

A few weeks ago, for instance, they took a field trip to a Shetland sheep farm. "They saw the wool, they saw how the sheep live, they experienced the barn," Fagrelius said. After that, they visited a turkey farm, then they swung by Zumbrota, Minn., to see the town's historic covered bridge.

Members of the Highland Friendship Club visit the Como Zoo.
Members of the Highland Friendship Club visit the Como Zoo.

"Over the last 22 years, it's gone from the kitchen table to what it is today," Leseman said.

The two ran the operation on a hands-on basis for its first 18 years or so. Now, it has a staff of 17, including Executive Director Patty Dunn, a board of directors and many volunteers.

Some members have grown close enough to get together outside the club. They think of the club as their own, not extensions of their family's friends.

Which is good, because "our kids are going to outlive us," Leseman said.

"When we're gone, we want to make sure our boys have this resource," Fagrelius said.