Great mates have a bond that's spanned 25 years

By Michele Hunter

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It was the spring of 1991 when Papamoa mates Mark Parrish and Eric Aroa took their first walk together -- a weekly ritual they've kept up for the 25 years since.

Mr Parrish, who has cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities, will celebrate his 48th birthday in January, despite being given a life expectancy at birth of just seven years.

Mr Aroa met Mr Parrish through a friend from church who knew he had a penchant for volunteer work and was fit and strong enough to push a wheelchair.

That was 25 years ago and, at age 86, the former farmer still pushes his friend on their weekly walk, sometimes as far as 3.5 kilometres if they take the longer route to Papamoa Plaza.

"I said I wouldn't be a fly-by-nighter so that's how I've got my time in," Mr Aroa told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend.

Supported Individualised Lifestyle Choices (SILC) residential house team leader Lisa Taylor, who manages the home Mr Parrish shares with three flatmates, said Mr Aroa's efforts were unique.

"The commitment he has with Mark, it actually is an inspiration for us as support staff," she said. "Eric makes a big impact on Mark's life. Mark knows that he has this outing every week, he loves it," he said.

GOOD MATES: Mark Parrish and Eric Aroa share a friendship that spans 25 years.PHOTOS/JOHN BORREN
GOOD MATES: Mark Parrish and Eric Aroa share a friendship that spans 25 years.PHOTOS/JOHN BORREN

In her nine years working for SILC, Mrs Taylor could only recall one week Mr Aroa had missed taking his mate for a walk, because he was visiting family in Australia.

She says his commitment is extraordinary. "I might do it for my kids, but not for a stranger," she said.

Most volunteers committed for about two months and there was always the potential for the residents to be negatively impacted by their sudden departure, she said.

As well as the friendship he shares with Mr Aroa, Mr Parrish also uses their weekly outings to do his own shopping, get some exercise, not missing the opportunity to pick up any rubbish he sees on the way.

Mr Aroa, who was recently nominated for the 2016 Minister of Health Volunteer Awards, gets a great sense of satisfaction from the friendship.

"It's helping others and I love doing that. Forgetting self and helping somebody else, you do get joy and satisfaction from doing that."

He says his contribution is a result of his Christian background -- he is an active member of St Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Mt Maunganui.

"As a Christian, I'll be in heaven and we'll be great mates. He won't be strapped in, he'll be a free spirit," he said.

It's not the first time Mr Aroa has given back to his community.

He has supported other youth activities and organisations and ran a men's prayer group for many years.

He did the gardens at Omanu Bowling Club for 13 years and spends a lot of time visiting people as a church elder.

The sprightly octogenarian shows no sign of slowing down.

And he won't be winding up the weekly walks any time soon either. "I've still got a couple of years or more left in me."

Mrs Taylor said Mr Parrish, who is blind, knew his friend's voice on the phone.

A smile spread across his face when he heard Mr Aroa would take him out the following day.

Mr Aroa knows it will be Mr Parrish's birthday on January 5 and jokes about how they will celebrate.

"I bought him a pair of socks one year, what do men do?" he said.

Mr Aroa, who was widowed six years ago, has a step-son in Australia. He also has grandchildren near Hot Water Beach in the Coromandel. "They really care for me," he said.

Mr Parrish's parents, Ann and Geoff, are hugely grateful for Mr Aroa's friendship. "The whole lot of us are just blown away by his kindness and we are just so delighted that somebody else loves him (Mark) as much as we do."

Mark has been in a wheelchair and non-verbal all his life, Eric has visited him once a week for the past 25 years. Photo/John Borren
Mark has been in a wheelchair and non-verbal all his life, Eric has visited him once a week for the past 25 years. Photo/John Borren

- Bay of Plenty Times

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