Julia Sansing knows how hard it can be for kids with disabilities to form friendships, especially in the midst of the pandemic, which is why she created Friend in Me.
Her organization pairs neurotypical student volunteers with children with disabilities for games and conversation over Zoom. Friend in Me started with just a handful of Sansing’s friends volunteering, and over the last year has blossomed into a nationwide program with almost 200 participants.
Sansing has a younger brother with autism and knows how difficult it can be for him to build new friendships and how powerful and uplifting it is when he does connect with peers. Watching the challenges he faced navigating middle and high school inspired her to create Friend in Me.
“I always noticed how hard it was for him to make friends and be able to interact with peers at school,” said Sansing. “I always wanted to help out with that and create opportunities for other kids that might be struggling with the same thing.”
She initially wanted buddies to meet for in-person social activities at her high school, but pivoted to Zoom meet-ups due to the outbreak of Covid-19. Little did she know at the time, but this model would prove even more impactful as it allowed her to reach kids with disabilities across the country who have become increasingly socially isolated during the pandemic.
The program’s ultimate goal is to build lasting friendships and dismantle the misconception that kids with disabilities can’t connect with neurotypical kids.
“I think the problem is kids don’t know a lot of people who have disabilities and it hasn’t been normalized as much as it should be, which isolates kids with disabilities,” said Sansing. “I started Friend in Me because I wanted to get rid of the stigma that kids with disabilities can’t make friends with other kids and vice versa.”
So far her mission is working. Not only do buddies routinely attend Friend in Me’s Zoom meet-ups, but several have started FaceTiming or texting in their own time. Parents have expressed joy that their children have built new friendships with peers and many student volunteers are surprised by how much they have in common with their buddy.
“I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from parents saying how hard it has been for their children to make friends during the pandemic,” said Sansing. “I had one parent tell me that even before the pandemic their child didn’t really have any friends and has now made a bunch of friends through Friend in Me.”
The organization is all the more impressive considering it is entirely run by a team of local high schoolers.
While Sansing heads the program, her brother Drew acts as an assistant manager and helps reach out to organizations and schools to spread the word about Friend in Me. Close friends Layla Chammas and Kavita Sekhon manage the volunteer side of the program, while Scarlett Klein runs the organization’s social media.
Together these teenagers have built a highly successful program that is now partnering with Special Olympics and groups in Chicago and Boston.
Sansing would love to create in-person social opportunities in the future and continue to expand the organization’s reach. She said those interested in volunteering or learning more should visit friendinmegroup.org.