It was every shy, socially awkward kid's worst nightmare. It was Doug Bender's 12th birthday party. The pizza, balloons and games were ready, but many hours after 3:30pm nobody turned up.
"That day I felt like nobody loved me, and I decided I would never have another party again," Doug says in a video testimony, his eyes betraying how familiar the pain of that experience is decades later. "Inside of myself I was just dying."
This wasn't the first time Doug had felt that way. He hated himself, he says, and the way he talked, walked, and looked. He hated his "fat" bottom lip he was forced to suck in constantly, hated his awkwardness. All he wanted was a friend.
He cried himself to sleep every night praying, "God, I just want one good friend. I want one person that cares about me, one person that hears me when I talk, that knows me in all my awkwardness and still likes me. That's all I want, just one person that likes me."
"I believed in God," Doug says, "I believed that Jesus died for me, and I went to church and all of that. But there was something still missing in the fact that I didn't quite understand that God loved me. I just wondered, because I didn't love me.
Shortly after the dreaded birthday party, Doug and his family moved to Virginia. A fresh start, but he still carried baggage from his bad experiences.
"Socially," he explains, "everything was awkward. I didn't know what to do with myself.
"People would come up to me and say Hi, and I'd be so nervous I'd just walk away, find an excuse to go to the water fountain."
But his claims of chronic thirst did not fool one of his new classmates, called Daniel.
"He was persistent," Doug recalls. "He seemed convinced he wanted to be my friend.
"And it seemed weird to me because I looked up to this guy as a hero, I was almost jealous of him, I thought Daniel was the 'cool' person.
"And the fact he wanted to be friends with me was confusing to me, I almost didn't believe it."
Daniel and Doug became friends. They hung out at each other's houses, and Doug felt that Daniel saw him as someone who was worth being friends with.
But having one friend is not enough to throw a party, as Doug tried telling his mum when she suggested he throw one again for his 16th birthday.
"I was super nervous. I invited Daniel and a couple of other people, but I waited till the very last day to invite them, acting like it wasn't a big deal. It was – it was a huge deal to me.
"The closer to the party it got, the more nervous I got."
Recollections from that dreaded day rise forward in Doug's mind, of staring from the clock to the driveway empty but for a balloon having come loose from the letter box, and of crying himself to sleep for yet another night.
"But sure enough," he says, a wide smile appearing on his face at the memory, "people came. There were like, 30 people that came.
"I realized I had friends. But bigger than that, I realize that prayer I'd prayed as a kid was something that God heard.
"All these years I'd prayed for one good friend, for that one person to hear me when I talk, to know me in all my awkwardness and still like me. That day I finally realized God was that person. God was my friend."•