Last summer, Mac Murzyn, 14, noticed his next-door neighbor, Jack Clam, 10, peering out the front window of his Morgan Park home and looking sad.
Jack lives with autism and doesn’t speak much. For the youngster, it’s not easy to form long-lasting friendships.
However, when the school year started last August, Mac changed all that.
As part of his eighth-grade service project at St. Cajetan Elementary School, Mac decided to befriend Jack.
Now, the two meet at least once a week to play games or have fun outside.
Sometimes, they’ll just walk around the neighborhood, or, they talk about their dogs, which they both have.
However, the visits are no longer just to fulfill service hours—they occur because the boys enjoy each other’s company.
“It’s just been more and more fun,” Mac said. “It’s just us hanging out like normal kids having fun.”
Since they met, the boys have visited as many as three times a week. Most of the time, they’re at Mac’s house because Jack loves venturing outside his own house.
The two enjoy playing cards and board games, completing puzzles, tinkering with Legos or roughhousing, because as Mac said, Jack “loves wrestling.”
That physical activity is also perfect for Murzyn, who wrestles competitively and whose father, Jan Murzyn, is a wrestling coach at Br. Rice High School.
As might be expected, Jan Murzyn said, during the first two play dates for the boys, a “huge learning curve” was needed to become accustomed to one another. Mac had to change some things, such as realizing that he can’t drink soda pop around Jack.
However, the elder Murzyn said his son now treats Jack like “a little brother.”
Even after Mac completed his service hours, the two remained close friends.
“He’s enjoying it. I’m enjoying it,” Mac said. “He has so much energy, the type of energy I wish I had.”
April will be Autism Awareness Month, and Jack’s mother, Kate Clam, is grateful that Mac has befriended her son and helped him deal with his autism.
Mac said a highlight of the boys’ friendship came when Jack first said Mac’s name.
Another, Kate said, was when Jack turned on Mac’s karaoke machine and discovered the fun of using the microphone and hearing his voice out loud.
It was a breakthrough moment—and one that led to Jack frequently inquiring about Mac.
“It kind of became something our son would genuinely look forward to every week. He doesn’t speak very much, but he would always ask for him,” Clam said. “It just became this really sweet thing, and he had this friendship with someone when he didn’t really ever have that before.”
Mac could have selected anything for his project, Clam said, but she and her husband, Matt Clam, are gratified that he “chose something special.”
More importantly, she said, Mac took it upon himself to bring Jack “out of his shell” and “win him over.”
“He totally did that on his own,” Kate Clam said. “He really took it seriously—‘I want to make a difference. I really want to make [the interaction] meaningful.’”
Jack attends a therapeutic day school run by the Chicago Public Schools, and his family supports his education through a “Jackspack” fundraising team that has supported various organizations.
They sell merchandise featuring the Chicago flag, but, instead of stars, the flag has two small handprints and two dog paw prints, in honor of Jack’s service dog, Duke, which they purchased through donations.
Clam said she is grateful that schools such as St. Cajetan Elementary School require students to complete service hours because it has changed her son’s life.
“I like that service is being brought back into the community because Jack would have never had this experience,” Clam said. “It was just great all around.”
Like most neighborhood kids, Mac hangs out near his house just about all the time.
Now, when Jack looks out the window, his mood is much different. If he sees Mac outside playing, he immediately wants to join him.
“Jack will run to him and give him a hug,” Clam said. “Any time he sees him, he gets so excited.”