Typical teens make their social connections on Instagram or Snapchat. But Middletown resident Sophia Ziajski is nowhere near typical. At just 17, she founded the Friends Connect Foundation, a New Jersey nonprofit corporation that fosters supportive environments where middle school and high school students with special needs can more easily form friendships with other community members.
To achieve this goal, Friends Connect offers fitness, self-expression, community service, music, and social skills programs designed to appeal to young people with special needs.
Ziajski was inspired to create Friends Connect after a friend asked her for advice about helping her autistic brother, who was having trouble making friends during his transition into middle school. Eager to help, Ziajski immediately began looking for friendship-making activities.
Her research revealed that most local nonprofits have long wait lists, 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, children with special needs continue to feel isolated, insecure, and incapable of making friends,” Ziajski said.
Seeing a need for better integration and support for adolescents with special needs, Ziajski told her friend that she would create a group to help her brother make more friends.
“I have many friends with intellectual disabilities who have also struggled to assimilate with their peers,” she said. “I felt I could design a group that could provide perfect opportunities for any teen struggling to find companionship.”
Ziajski began by hosting two events for her social group called “Kids Connect” in 2017, and grew her database to nearly 80 volunteers and participants. “As our small community began to grow with each event, I felt that my group should become legally recognized as a nonprofit business entity before we continued to host more socials,” she said.
Legal resistance, however, slowed her momentum. Because she is younger than 18, she was not able to incorporate her group as a nonprofit.
But Ziajski did not give up. After much research, she discovered the Comprehensive Fiscal Sponsorship, which allows another nonprofit to cover the liabilities of an unrecognized group while they await incorporation. Ziajski pitched her proposal to about 25 different nonprofits; fewer than 10 replied, three considered her idea for months, but none followed through.
“I decided that there had to be another way to make it work,” Ziajski said. “I searched for weeks to find a group of attorneys willing to assist me in the incorporation process. Working alongside parents and educators, we collaboratively planned the future of Kids Connect as its founding board members.”
Those months of preparation involved taking one step up and two steps back. “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.
It took nearly one year to outline all the pages and details of the group’s website and database, write the marketing and advertising materials, contact candidates for the Business Development and Graphic Design internships, create the organization’s structure, and prepare data for sponsors.
“I put a lot of effort into forming this foundation,” Ziajski said, “and I plan to solicit every business and individual until we are able to provide programs to this underserved population.”
The largest obstacle Ziajski currently faces is funding. She donated the money she saved from working as a nanny and a lifeguard to cover administrative and startup expenses, and she created detailed budgets to present the group more effectively to grantees and corporations. The foundation is also looking for volunteers, who can register on the Friends Connect website.
Despite the challenges, Ziajski said that creating and working with the foundation reaps “endless rewards.”
“Knowing that I’m able to help a community that otherwise wouldn’t have had access to new hobbies, free social skills development, and opportunities to form long-lasting friendships is a reward in itself,” she said.
She also is gratified by feedback from parents, who see their children grow more confident and involved at school, or hear their nonverbal children pronouncing new words for the first time.
While Friends Connect is taking off, Ziajski is not done yet. “My dream is to open up chapters across the nation so that we can spread our mission to more communities,” she 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.
“This way, participants who have completed our social skills and community service programs are able to apply the skills that they have learned through increased participation in academic and workplace environments,” Ziajski noted.
For more information about Friends Connect, visit friendsconnectfoundation.org or call 732-737-7354. To donate, visit the website’s Give Back page, the Friends Connect Foundation Facebook page, gofundme.com/friends-connect-foundation, or shop on AmazonSmile and select Friends Connect Foundation.
Here are some characteristics that make Friends Connect unique among nonprofit corporations:
Long-term friendships: The group focuses on forming long-term friendships between neuro-typical and special needs individuals.
Designed for underserved populations: Programs are specifically designed for adolescents and teens with special needs.
Program evaluators: A panel of community members – teen volunteers, parents of special needs children, health professionals, educators, and activity-specific instructors with special needs certifications – develop and evaluate the programs.
Custom-built priority system: As opposed to first-come, first-serve, the Friends Connect system generates a roster of accepted participants based on the number of times a child has applied for, been accepted to, and attended events. This way, first-time applicants, new members, and returning participants are able to attend the programs.
Consistent service hours schedule: Volunteers who have required community service hours can rely on these programs as a consistent community service opportunity. Youth leadership opportunities are also available through the Teen Ambassador Program.