PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Six years ago, a local teenager wanted to help her autistic twin brother make friends. Thanks to both of them, hundreds of other young people with special needs have a club all their own.
It all started in South Jersey, and it has grown by leaps and bounds. We caught up with one of the clubs in Royersford, where the kids were having a blast playing a game with empty tissue boxes filled with ping pong balls.
“You tie it on your waist, you have it on the back, and you have to shake it out,” Gabrielle Durand explained. She runs the suburban Philadelphia chapter of Fantastic Friends.
Some of these young people have special needs. Some have only limited speaking skills. But in this group, they’re all paired up with other young people for social activities.
“There’s a stereotype with people with special needs, but I love that I get to change that stereotype,” Gabrielle said.
Marissa Hacker is 21 and started the first Fantastic Friends chapter when she was only 15, inspired by her twin brother Matt.
Marissa said, “It was very challenging, because a lot of people didn’t really understand him or didn’t really reach out to him. They need a community where they can come together and feel like they have a ton of love and support.”
“I get to…it helped me make a lot of friends,” Matt said.
Now there are seven Fantastic Friends chapters across the country from California to New York. Shelby Horgan is one of the suburban Philadelphia volunteers. On this night she’s hanging out with member Stephen Anderson.
“Stephen? He’s the best,” Shelby said. “He’s friendly, funny, not afraid to talk to anyone.”
“I like Fantastic Friends,” Stephen said. “It’s fun. You get to meet a lot of people.”
Marissa would love to make this her life’s work. “It’s amazing how much it’s grown. There’s a need for it all over the world,” she said.