In the post below, 17-year-old Marissa Hacker shares why she founded an organization that teaches people with autism the value of friendship, like her twin brother Matthew!
My name is Marissa Hacker, I am 17-years-old and I am the founder of Fantastic Friends. I have a twin brother, Matthew, who has Autism. His autism makes him face problems with socialization and making friends.
The night before our 15th birthday, Matthew came home crying from a summer camp. He told me that he was upset because he didn’t have any friends. This made me want to help him make friends as fast as I could, because in that moment, I truly understood his pain of being lonely.
I wanted to create an organization for Matthew and kids alike to be able to socialize with others with and without special needs. I decided to spread information around to other local teens with special needs and teens who would be interested in becoming volunteers.
In summer of 2011, Fantastic Friends was born! Fantastic Friends is an organization that teaches people with special needs about the value of friendship and provides opportunities for them to socialize, have fun and meet new people. Fantastic Friends hosts monthly social gatherings and events to bring together individuals with special needs, friends, volunteers and more in a comfortable setting that is free from the challenges that many attendees may normally face.
The first Fantastic Friends event I set up was a sports day for 10 teens with special needs and 10 volunteers, which included a whiffle ball and kick ball. After we played, we went to a local lake and ate pizza while we sat on blankets in the sand. The thanks and the smiles were all I needed to make this "thing" bigger and better.
In July of 2013, I was awarded a grant from the Youth Service America as the New Jersey Youth Ambassador under the premise that I would do Fantastic Friends outreach throughout the State.
As part of my Ambassadorship, I went to Capitol Hill in September to lobby and share Fantastic Friends with New Jersey's Representative, Robert Andrews. I've also spoken at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in 2013 in front of 30 fellows and a few speech therapists and at a local high school.
I am also starting Fantastic Friends workshops for parents and sibs! I hosted our first workshop for our Prom volunteers and we raised awareness for special needs inclusion. I planned Disney themed workshop games on social isolation to educate teens on the social struggles that people with special needs face daily.
Our Chapter Presidents plan the events and host them at different entertainment/recreation venues, depending on the location of the chapter. We currently have 2 chapters; one in South Jersey and the other in Central Alabama. Both chapters were started by sibs! We are currently in collaboration with other areas to start chapters.
We are also hosting a very big prom in June for our South Jersey Chapter! It is Disney themed and it is open to 100 volunteers and 100 participants with special needs! Please help us spread the word!
View my NBC Philadelphia interview below!!
It would be amazing if everyone could please pass information about Fantastic Friends along! I am trying to spread Fantastic Friends chapters across the world. I want to connect as many people with special needs as possible to a social program, but even better, to a Fantastic Friends family :)! Thank you!