Zach Martin of Richmond Hill is a 20-year-old young man with autism, a fascination with trains, and – after Saturday – a community that stands behind him.
He usually watches trains alone in the grassy lot off Ford Avenue near City Hall.
That changed Saturday when a crowd of about 50 or so cycled in and out during a two-hour cake and punch party to celebrate with Zach on National Train Day, whether they liked trains or not.
The turnout didn’t surprise family friend and resident Lynnette Comette.
“I totally expected people to show up because Richmond Hill shows up,” Comette said. “If somebody puts out a need or say, ‘Hey, this is what we’ve got going on,’ there’s always somebody that has their back.”
She pointed to complaints about growth and increased traffic.
“But look at this,” she said over The O’Jays singing Love Train as part of the party’s music. “We’re growing for the good.”
Grace Schiffman said she cried when she learned of the open-invitation party on Facebook and how Zach hadn’t been invited to many parties.
“It’s amazing. Our city is amazing,” Schiffman said in a T-shirt with bold lettering that read, Lead with Kindness. “I think every little piece of kindness adds to the world. It’s amazing to me. So when I saw this (party) I knew that we needed to be here.”
Attending was an easy choice for Claude Debnam, too. Like Zach, Debnam loved trains since he was a child and actually worked on the railroad for Norfolk Southern. Debnam was out Saturday with binoculars and explained how the Ford Avenue railroad is part of a line that runs from Miami to New York.
“This is a mainline for the eastern U.S.,” the 18-year-resident said while explaining the logistics and connections to history.
Harold Jaynes was one of several sitting in a line of lawn chairs.
About a year ago, he said he and his friend came to the same spot to watch an Amtrak and saw Zach with a notebook. According to Jaynes, Zach explained he was grading the trains.
“And the longer they were, the better they were. He didn’t like passenger trains,” Jaynes said, adding how he friended Zach’s mom on Facebook and saw the post about him being invited to his first party in his entire life.
“And I just felt, ‘wow, that’s not fun,’ so I sent a message back, ‘we’re going to throw him a train party’” Jaynes said, explaining how he edited a photo for the cake.
“We just wanted people to come and have cake with us because we didn’t want to take a lot of cake home,” Zach’s mother, Erika Martin, said during the party. “So, I just kind of put it out there to the community and this is what happened.”
It meant a lot to see all the support.
“Because a lot of kids on the spectrum don’t make friends easily and for Zach that is very true. He has trouble relating to people, socially,” Erika explained.
She recalled her son’s interest in trains since he was a small child.
She said his passion “took on a whole new life of its own,” when she and her family moved to Richmond Hill nearly two years ago. Now, trains are only a couple miles from home for Zach to watch nearly every day.
“Sometimes on the weekend, he’s out there all day long,” Erika said of the Richmond Hill High School student.
RHHS teacher Kelsey Forbes teaches Zach and received a party invitation to distribute to the class.
“I originally thought it was just going to be this small, little thing and it completely blew up and it’s so, so cool,” Forbes said. “To see the community coming out and supporting him and letting him know, ‘you may not have grown up here, but we all welcome you and we love you.’
The special education teacher explained fixations are common for those with autism, but she called them “so intelligent.”“They’re different, but they’re not less, at all,” Forbes said, pointing to how much Zach knows about trains. “He has so much to bring to the world."
Publix donated drinks and desserts. CSX corporate gave Zach gifts.