A simple request from a friend transitioned into the inspiration to create a nonprofit “friend connection” foundation.
Meet 18-year-old Sophia Ziajski, a Middletown resident and senior at the Academy of Allied Health and Science. Ziajski is also the founder and executive director of the local nonprofit Friends Connect Foundation.
“I was inspired to create Friends Connect Foundation after a friend asked for advice about helping her autistic brother who was having trouble making friends during his transition into middle school,” she said.
Ziajski began looking for friendship-making activities and, after much research, realized the majority of nonprofits in the area have expensive fees, long waitlists, are strictly sports-oriented, or accept a larger number of elementary school-aged participants.
“I came to the troubling realization that despite the current efforts being made to make society more supportive, teenagers with special needs continue to feel isolated, insecure and incapable of making friends,” she said.
Ziajski explained there was a need for better integration and support for adolescents with special needs.
“I told my friend that I would create a group that would assist her brother in making more friends,” she said. “Over the years, I formed many friendships with individuals who have intellectual or developmental disabilities, who have also struggled to assimilate with their peers. I felt I could design a group that could provide perfect opportunities for any teen struggling to find companionship.”
Initially, Ziajski’s family and friends were skeptical about whether she had the time or qualifications to maintain the operation of a nonprofit considering her age – 17 at the time of the endeavor – and the process of incorporating a nonprofit entity required perseverance.
She admitted, “Legal resistance was the biggest obstacle I faced when I wanted to incorporate our unrecognized social group because I was a minor. I was not able to incorporate.”
Ziajski discovered the Comprehensive Fiscal Sponsorship, which allows another nonprofit to cover the liabilities of an unrecognized group while they await incorporation. She pitched the proposal to approximately 25 different nonprofits, but none followed through. She then sought assistance from a group of attorneys willing to help with the incorporation process.
“With every step that we took forward, we were met with additional challenges: our group’s name was taken; I had to evaluate dozens of web and database designers within our small budget; I researched hundreds of articles to find data and statistics for grant applications; and I even attempted to build and code our website and database,” Ziajski said.
The task at hand at first appeared daunting, but she persevered by learning the terminology involved in accounting, law, website development and insurance so her message would resonate.
After several months of developing an elaborate business plan, organizational structure and a custom-built database, Ziajski proved herself. And as the organization began making an impact on the community, many local supporters and professionals extended a helping hand by spreading the word and donating materials.
“To this day, my friends continue to help with hosting fundraisers at school and hold leadership roles at the events by helping sign in the volunteers and participants,” she said. “It is truly heartwarming to see my school and local community come together to support my organization and its special needs participants.”
In 2018, Friends Connect Foundation had 64 new members register in the database. By 2019, the number of participants tripled, and recently they established a partnership with the Middletown Township Public Library, where monthly social skills events are held in the community room.
Summer programs will be released in early April. The organization will also host fitness, music, social skills, self-expression and community service events that include classes in yoga, candle-making, woodworking, hip-hop, art lessons, field days, and other activities.
“My dream is to open up chapters across the nation so that we can spread our mission to more communities,” Ziajski said. “I would also love to form more partnerships with corporations that offer employment opportunities, and schools that lack clubs or events that promote inclusion.”
Three things Ziajski believes others can learn from her experience are:
1. Everyone has the potential to leave a positive impact, regardless of his or her age.
2. Making a difference starts with one act of kindness.
3. Even if the odds may not seem in your favor or there appear to be obstacles preventing you from achieving a goal, determination, positivity and persistence will always help you find a way to overcome these difficulties. Never be afraid to ask for advice or help from those who may have been in a similar position as you. Always believe in yourself!
For more information about Friends Connect Foundation, visit FriendsConnectFoundation.org.