By: Joan Elovitz Kazan

“Her smile lights up a room” might be an overused cliché but some people personify the phrase. Liz Hacker is one of those people. Liz brought her infectious smile and positive energy to Friendship Circle this past summer where she worked as a marketing intern, joined the Ride for Friendship as a cyclist and took on a self-appointed role as the organization’s biggest cheerleader.

Liz worked her social media magic to promote a variety of events and programs including the annual Bike4Friendship. She also met the $1250 cyclist fundraising goal and rode a mile on a specially adapted bike. Until recently, Liz and her family could not have imagined these achievements would be possible.

Ann and Keith Hacker were given no encouragement that their baby daughter could thrive in any way. “Liz’s disability is the result of a birth injury: she was without oxygen for 17 minutes just prior to birth. In the moments after she was born, (the medical team) tried to resuscitate her for 45 minutes,” Ann recalls.

When Liz was brought back to life, Ann and Keith asked for a prognosis. “When we asked what we should expect from her life, the doctors said, ‘we don’t know what to tell you, because we’ve never seen a child with this type of brain damage survive,’” Ann says. “I understood that to mean don’t expect a whole lot,” she adds. “It’s a miracle Liz is even alive.”

But the miracles were only beginning, despite physical limitations, Liz’ personality began to shine. “We could tell Liz knew what was going on around her. So even though her body wasn’t moving we could see that she understood what was going on. The surprises over the years are related to how well she connects with people,” Ann recalls.

Liz’s parents were also surprised at her intellectual ability. “We saw how well she was able to learn, starting with learning to read and then to be able to do grade level academic work,” Ann explains.

When it was time for college, Concordia University fit the bill both academically and because they offered the support Liz needed to succeed on campus. But there was another hurdle: The marketing program at Concordia requires every student to complete an internship. “I really started to worry because I was thinking about where Liz would be able to work and who would give her an opportunity,” Ann recalls.

Fast forward a few years, Ann discovered an organization that would alleviate those worries. It started with a simple coffee date.

In October 2021, Liz and Ann, who live in Thiensville, decided to check out a café in Fox Point they’d been hearing about. That day wasn’t about finding an internship or becoming part of a welcoming, supportive community. It was about conversation over coffee and snacks. “We met a friend at Friendship Café and while we were there, Terri Miller introduced herself,” Ann recalls.

Terri Miller is the Special Education Director in the Employment Training Program. Terri’s daughter, Shira, works at the café and bakery. Terri welcomed Liz and Ann and shared more about the organization behind the café. “Liz also found out that you can rent out the art studio for birthday parties,” Ann explains. Liz celebrated turning 22 with a Friendship Circle party and plans are in the works for her to celebrate turning 23 there. “It was the best birthday party!” Liz says. “We’re going do it again in a few weeks,” she adds.

I could not imagine doing any of this five years ago. It would’ve just been too hard. But I saw that I could do it and I was motivated to do it

Friendship Circle executive director Levi Stein also welcomed Liz and Ann that day. “He asked Liz what she was studying, and when Levi heard Liz was a marketing major, he said, ‘Oh really,’” Ann adds. Eventually the connection was made that Liz was looking for an internship in marketing and Levi asked her to interview for that.”

Fundraising and participating as a cyclist in the Bike4Friendship were not requirements for the internship but Levi encouraged Liz to take on this challenge. “We got the bike about a month before the ride and Liz really had to practice to figure out how far she could go,” Ann says. “At first, we thought Liz could bike a few feet or maybe a block, but she was so motivated. “I wanted to get out and practice,” Liz chimes in.

“We went to different parks in the area, we went to Rotary Park and we went down by the lakefront. People commented about the bike. Those experiences got Liz even more motivated to keep trying and pushing those pedals when it got hard. The more she could do, the more encouraged she was to try harder,” Ann explains.

Like any good marketing professional, Liz posted regular updates on social media about her training and made it her mission to spread the word about Friendship Circle. “Liz enjoyed having the opportunity to talk to people about Friendship Circle and people found out about it that wouldn’t have known about it otherwise,” Ann recalls. “I’m always trying to get people to volunteer at Friendship Circle,” Liz adds.

Sharing her passion and offering encouragement and support comes full circle for Liz. “She likes getting support from the people at Friendship Circle, she likes to, in turn, give that support or pass along resources that she knows; this gives Liz confidence and she feels like she has something to offer,” Ann explains.

Friendship Circle became more than just a workplace for Liz. “The internship helped her to gain a lot of confidence and skills in a real work environment. We thought it would just be a job, but Liz found a group of friends and a community of support,” Ann says. “Friendship Circle is family now, it’s welcoming and I feel so loved,” Liz explains.

Her philosophy on life is pretty simple, “Just keep trying, even when it’s hard,” she adds.

As Liz works towards her college degree, she has the motivation to keep trying and ultimately succeed. “Liz has always wanted to work for a non-profit,” Ann explains. But after her internship her goal has become more specific, “I want to work at Friendship Circle!” Liz says.