- Associated Press - Sunday, April 16, 2017

HOLLAND, Mich. (AP) - It was a grin that brought them together, and 42 years later, that grin is still holding.

Mike Visscher, 66, and Dan Castillo, 51, both of Holland, have been friends since 1975, when Visscher signed up to be a “big brother” through the now-disbanded Higher Horizons PALS program, facilitated through Hope College.

The Holland Sentinel (https://bit.ly/2nSWWZy ) reports that the program’s goal was to offer male role models to boys in single-parent families.

Visscher said the program coordinator handed him several photos of boys whose mothers had signed them up for the mentoring program.

“This guy had the biggest grin on his face, and I knew that was the guy,” he said.



Castillo’s parents were divorced, and his father lived in Texas.

They two met for the first time Aug. 4, 1975. Castillo was 9 - about to turn 10 - and Visscher was 24, going on 25.

“I was telling him all the things we were going to do, and most of them were sports-related,” Visscher said. “He was just grinning.”

After they were matched up, the two met at least once a week for a couple of hours - but they hit it off quickly, and most weeks they would meet several times. Back then, they would go bowling, miniature golfing, walking for March of Dimes and found other things to do around town or just hang out at Visscher’s house.

Mostly, though, they bonded over a love of sports, and they attended basketball and football games as often as they could.

“I think Mike really did affect me because Mike really got me into sports,” Castillo said. “I had no clue of sports when I was little. Next thing you know I’m playing rocket football, baseball, basketball … and really that was a testament to Mike getting me interested.”

For Visscher, this was a relief.

“I’m glad he liked sports, because after that, I didn’t know what to do with this kid,” he said with a chuckle.

“Sports was always a driving force for us to get together,” Castillo said. “It was nice to always see Mike in the stands because my mother didn’t really go to the games.”

And now, 42 years later, sports is still the glue that binds them. Though the mentoring program that brought them together is no longer in existence, their friendship remains strong.

The two men get together to watch every Hope College home basketball game they can - Castillo has season tickets.

“So all those years that I paid for things for him, he’s trying to make up for now,” Visscher said with a laugh. “I said, ‘You still haven’t caught up yet.’”

But it rarely ends with the game.

“We sit in the stands and talk for an hour after the game,” Visscher said.

Through the years, they became family. Castillo was an usher in Visscher’s wedding in 1978 - the same year they were featured in a Sentinel article touting the Higher Horizons PALS program. When Castillo joined the military after graduation, Visscher would write him regularly.

And through the years, as Castillo got married and both men’s families grew (each has three daughters and one son), they continued to make time for each other, catching games together as often as their schedules would allow.

Sometimes they would attend sports activities the other’s children were involved in. Castillo, who coached his children, also coached one of Visscher’s daughters.

“It’s like a good brother-friend relationship that has been a strong one,” Castillo said.

It’s something Castillo is grateful for, since his brother, who also was matched with a “big brother” in 1975, doesn’t share the same lasting bond with his former mentor.

“They were together for a few years, as well,” he said. “Not like Mike and I.”

For Visscher, who is now retired, the relationship offers an added support as he battles cancer - and although he has recently received good news from the doctor, there is still more chemotherapy and fighting to do.

As he looks hopefully toward the future, he also looks back, glad for a friendship that has lasted so long.

“I’m glad I went forward in doing (the Higher Horizons program), because Dan has been a big part of my life,” he said. “What he’s gotten from me, I’ve gotten from him.”

Their friendship has been one of a shared love of sports, but also two kindred spirits.

“He’s always had that big smile and laugh, and that drew me to him,” Visscher said. “I think I’m that kind of guy, too.”

Castillo agreed.

“My life has been good, I feel, and Mike has been an integral part of it,” he said. “He really made me who I am, I feel.”

This year, just like all the others, locals can find the two in the stands at DeVos Fieldhouse as often as Hope’s basketball team is playing there - cheering on the home team together.

___

Information from: The Holland Sentinel, https://www.thehollandsentinel.com

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