In a previous life, before becoming Boris Antonio The Courageous Snow Tiger, he was a simply a lost mitten, lying alone atop a pile of snow along the lakefront trail.
Perhaps a metal clasp lost its grip as the mitten dangled from the sleeve of child’s coat, but its origin story wasn’t a concern for Tom Camacho, a jogger who found the colorful tiger-shaped glove near Montrose Harbor late last year.
Camacho, 58, had his own plans for the mitten: use it as a hand puppet to foster an online friendship with Gavin Rinker, an 11-year-old boy who struggles to make friends because he suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder characterized by severe difficulties in social interaction.
Gavin and Camacho were paired together by “I Run 4,” an organization that connects runners with people all over the world suffering from physical and mental challenges as a way to build friendships and encourage each other. The idea is I Run 4 (and you fill in the blank with the name of the “buddy” you are paired with).
They met via Skype (Gavin lived in New Jersey at the time but has since moved to Las Vegas) on Jan. 2. They decided Camacho should run 3,000 miles in 2014. They also decided the mitten should be called Boris Antonio The Courageous Snow Tiger.
Camacho even came up with an accent to fit the backstory they created for Boris Antonio.
“It’s part Russian and part Italian because we decided Boris came from Ukraine and moved to Rome,” Camacho said.
As he reached his running goal a few weeks ago on the lakefront path, both of Camacho’s hands were occupied: one held his phone — video camera activated; the other hand became Boris Antonio.
“People like Tom do things like this and they don’t really have to, but they still do it,” Gavin said. “They do it even with people who have worse disabilities than I have.”
Gavin and Camacho chat, on average, a few times a month. Camacho also has sent Gavin, now 12, a video journal nearly every day over the last year, documenting the journey. Each entry begins “Good morning, G-Man!” (Tom’s nickname for Gavin.)
“Gavin is actually brilliant,” Camacho said. “He can talk about things like science in a way I can’t even recite back, but it’s hard for him to focus any longer than three to five minutes.”
There’s no monetary involvement in the I Run 4 program, just a human connection. It’s a change of pace for Camacho, who’s constantly raising money for Special Olympics Chicago in honor of his niece, who has multiple sclerosis. He ran in the 2014 Chicago Marathon to raise money for the organization, too.
“Gavin totally gets it,” said Camacho, who sells kitchen equipment and freelances as a non-profit grant writer. “I get duplicate medals for all my races and I send them to him. I’m not exactly sure how emotionally that impacts him. His mother says it’s substantial, but it’s kind of hard to tell. He doesn’t show very much emotion. That’s just the nature of the beast with Asperger’s.”
Gavin’s mother, Desiree Rinker, feels blessed Tom is in her son’s life.
“He doesn’t have any friends,” Rinker said. “He has his siblings, you know, but Tom’s his friend. He looks forward to everything with Tom.”
Gavin has a hard time connecting with children because he chats mostly about intellectual topics and facts that he’s memorized, but he communicates very well with Tom, according to his mother, who has six kids. Gavin, now 12, sometimes wears Camacho’s marathon T-shirts and race medals to school.
Gavin said of Tom: “Me and him both really like talking about sharks and how they are amazing and powerful creatures and how they are very misunderstood . . . he’s a great friend.”
“What Tom does is just absolutely amazing,” said Rinker, who’s also a runner and has a little buddy of her own.
The pair plan to meet in person in 2015, possibly when Camacho visits Las Vegas to run a marathon. “We have no plans on dissolving this relationship,” Camacho said.