The friendship between Mike Berkson and Tim Wambach formed over a soft taco that exploded on first bite, leaving Berkson covered with bits of beef, cheese, onions and lettuce.
Then age 12, Berkson, who has
, was accustomed to such messes, but his new Glenview school aide, Wambach, was clearly upset.
"Hey," Berkson said, grinning from his wheelchair. "Don't cry over spilled Taco Bell."
That was a defining moment, the men agree today — a decade later — in a journey that has resulted in a book, speaking engagements and the formation of Keep On Keeping On, a nonprofit foundation to help others with physical disabilities.
Wambach realized the kid was smart and sarcastic beyond his years, and suddenly the boy's wheelchair had disappeared.
The two, who continue to find humor in difficult situations, are now taking their story to the stage to "educate, empower and entertain" audiences at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. Their show is called "Handicap This!"
"We both needed each other," said Wambach, 37, of Des Plaines, who struggled to find direction before meeting Berkson. "He's inspired me to do more with what I have."
Their supporting cast offstage consists of close-knit family members, including Berkson's identical twin brother, David, now in college. Wambach, the family learned, could not only keep up with the twins' banter over movies, video games and rap music, but was also efficient and nonjudgmental in attending to Mike's basic needs.
Berkson, 22, was born with cerebral palsy, a disorder of movement and muscle tone caused by a
injury or abnormal development. He requires help with most daily activities, such as eating meals, bathroom needs and transferring in and out of his wheelchair. He speaks with some difficulty, but it becomes apparent to anyone who listens that he is highly intelligent — and attuned to the ignorance of some people who treat him as a child.
"He is able to cheer me up," Berkson said about Wambach before a show rehearsal last week. "Sometimes I'm not in a great mood. My physical feeling can change at a moment's notice."
The two interrupted each other and laughed at each other's jokes. Wambach affectionately rubbed Berkson's head or adjusted the younger man's rigid arms without being asked, a seemingly automatic response honed from the long-term friendship.
They met after Wambach, on a whim, applied for a job as a substitute teacher in Glenview Public School District 34 in 2001. He filled in as a classroom aide for Berkson, then in seventh grade at Springman Middle School.
Berkson kidded his new helper and nicknamed him "Billy Madison," after the
movie about an adult slacker forced to repeat grade school.
Wambach worked with Berkson through his freshman year at Glenbrook South High School. After that, Wambach — deep in debt and struggling to find a more lucrative career — pursued other jobs for a few years but remained close to the family, he said.
At one point, searching for motivation, he came up with an idea. He would take Mike and his brother, David, to Disney World, then bring attention to cerebral palsy by running from Orlando to Chicago — a distance of 717 miles.He had never run for more than 30 minutes at a time, but he was determined to do something in a big way for his friend Mike.
After training with a professional long-distance runner for six weeks, he crossed the finish line at Glenbrook South in August 2005, greeted by a cheering crowd that included Berkson, then a high school junior. The run took 31 days and six pairs of shoes, said Wambach, who plans to do it again in 2014.
Wambach wrote about his experiences with Berkson in a book, "How We Roll," which included input from Berkson and a foreword written by his father, Denis Berkson.
"Each looks at the world where there are some dark spots, and they see some light," Denis Berkson wrote. "Where there is a little sadness, they see a whole lot of potential for happy."
The book features vignettes from their lives that are in part hilarious and, in other chapters, a reminder of the obstacles faced by Berkson that others take for granted. It also includes poignant moments when Wambach reveals his own hurdles and where it becomes obvious that he needs Berkson as much as his young charge needs him.
After one conversation in the bathroom, a place where seemingly all heavy subjects are discussed, Wambach confided that he had suffered a long bout of depression. A doctor predicted that he would land in a mental institution after he insisted the prescription drugs were making him worse, he wrote in the book.
Answered Berkson: "And now here you are. … You're not in a mental institution. You're in a bathroom changing a teenager's diaper."
The proceeds from "How We Roll" go toward Keep On Keeping On. The group has helped pay for equipment and therapy for people with disabilities by partnering with other area social service groups.
Jessica Martin, 24, looked to the foundation for help when she found that her insurance didn't cover the total cost of a new $40,000 power wheelchair. Martin, who has cerebral palsy, teamed up with the foundation to help raise the $10,000 needed for part of the chair that allows her to stand.
"I need that for flexibility," said Martin, of Des Plaines. "That was the kind of chair I had before, but the insurance company wouldn't pay."
In 2007, Wambach took a job as Berkson's full-time aide at the family's home in Glenview. The two started a for-profit group, Handicap This!, and began speaking professionally together. They decided to take their show onstage in 2010, influenced by Denis Berkson, "their creative crusader," who is head of the performing arts department at Oakton Community College.
During their recent rehearsal, the two replayed snippets of their lives, improvising and enjoying the results as Berkson's father and the show's director, John Frisco, threw in suggestions.
"The doctors told my mom not to expect much out of me when I was born," Mike Berkson said, with no need to consult a script.
The show at the Skokie performing arts center opens with a youth series in late October. The performance for the general public will be held Nov. 4.
The 78-minute, two-man show has left audiences laughing and silent at times, as they absorb the friends' message. Sometimes, audience members approach the men later to say they recognized the story as their own.
Berkson, unlike Wambach, is never nervous on stage.
"I feel comfortable because it is my life," he said. "You always get something authentic. Whether I am sick or healthy, that infuses itself into the performance."
For more information, go to handicapthis.com and keeponkeepingon.org.