Lisa Carreon was facing an issue with her 11-year-old son Emileo that is all too common for mothers with special needs children.
“He came home and had some difficulty in school. He got caught (giving the finger) because he was emulating a bad behavior he saw someone doing,” Carreon said.
When she explained to Emileo that what he did is wrong, “he burst into tears because he doesn’t have friends.”
A lack of friends, and being ostracized or bullied for being “different” or misunderstood is a challenge special needs children and parents worry about every day.
It’s an isolation Marissa Hacker, a young woman from New Jersey, has been trying to change for others the past five years.
Growing up, Hacker didn’t think of her twin brother Matthew as “different.” He was simply a quirky guy interested in Disney movies and numbers.
But those interests weren’t shared by many other 14-year-olds. In 2011 Matthew — who is autistic — returned from his special-needs summer camp in tears, complaining of not making any friends.
Hacker, then 14, took it upon herself to help her brother.
Using Facebook and local media, she rallied friends and classmates to attend a get-together for her brother and other special needs children.
“Fantastic Friends,” which seeks to pair special-needs children and “normal” kids for events of all types, was born.
There is no fee to be part of a group. All you need is the willingness to come together and respect each other.
Now 19, Hacker reached a milestone last year when she organized a beach-themed prom for the group attended by 220 minors.
“It’s all about helping them make friends and feel welcome and be who they are,” she said.
Creating A Valley Chapter
Carreon, who lives in Reseda, read about “Fantastic Friends” in a magazine recently, and “a light” went on.
She’s now creating a local chapter.
“She was very excited and wanted to start a chapter in the San Fernando Valley. She’s very passionate about this issue,” Hacker said of Carreon.
Indeed she is.
“I’ve been involved in the autism community for the past 12 years and have been looking for the social groups for [Emileo]. But all of them only involve special needs kids,” Carreon said.
“This is unique,” she said, of engaging special needs and typically development kids together for monthly get-togethers.
Emileo, the oldest of Carreon’s two kids, has mild to moderate autism. His main issue is trying to cope with changes, which can lead to meltdowns.
“When things get different and change, he struggles with that,” she said.
“He’s going to graduate one day, and normally we meet new friends. But I don’t see that our special needs kids will get that opportunity. It’s important for them to build relationships outside the special needs community.”
Her hope is that the monthly events through “Fantastic Friends” would develop Emileo’s social skills.
Events include bowling outings, crafts, outdoor physical activity, and games where peers of the same age — both special needs and typical kids — can interact with each other in a safe environment.
“Special needs children tend to have a group of 10-12 kids that they know in their whole school career. We need to get them involved in their community; not just a special needs surrounding, but have them be open to everyone,” Carreon said.
“Normal development kids will gain a lot, too —empathy, leadership skills and how to be around (special needs children). A lot of the problems are because normal kids don’t understand why special needs kids to do these things.”
If a normal development kid sees a 12-year-old special needs kid jump up and down to celebrate something, “it might look strange to them,” Carreon said. “For us to understand each other more we have to engage with each other.”
Carreon does community outreach, and calls on kids ages 10 to 19 — both special needs and normal youngsters — along with adult volunteers to help mediate and monitor.
“We want as many as we can get,” Carreon said. “I’d like this to be a kickstart for other communities. I would like to see other areas start their own chapters, reach as many kids as we can. There’s a lot of opportunity for this to be a really big group.”
Her goal is to have 10-12 kids get together, play, and know each other in smaller events —and continue to grow the group.
“I would love to have something like that prom,” said Carreon, referring to Hacker’s event in New Jersey.
The mother is not the only one excited by the prospect of a local chapter. So is Emileo.
“He wants to be a helper. He’s looking beyond his own limitations,” Carreon said.
She adds that a group like this can also be helpful to parents.
“We can also get together to have coffee or lunch. It’s important for parents to share as well. We can even have a parent support system,” Carreon said.
To join or find more information about the San Fernando Valley chapter of Fantastic Friends, email Lisa Carreon at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their Facebook Page, http://bit.ly/1YmQu8z.
You can also visit the national website at www.myfantaticfriends.org.