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Meet the Jewish Teen Who’s Breaking Down the Barriers for Kids with Special Needs

marissa hacker

The Challenge: Matthew Hacker was diagnosed as autistic when he was 2.5. But why did that mean people excluded him all the time?

The Solution: Fantastic Friends, an organization for special needs kids where everyone is treated equally.

The Teen Hero Who’s Making This World A Better Place: Marissa Hacker, Matthew’s twin sister and founder of Fantastic Friends.

Marissa Hacker remembers thinking that her brother was so much fun to play with—brave and bold and full of smiles. She didn’t know why his diagnosis of autism meant he had to be secluded in all these “special needs” classes and playgroups. The night before their 15th birthday, she decided she was going to change that dynamic.

Her vision—Fantastic Friends—is an organization where teens of all neurological backgrounds come together and enjoy each other. They have special events once a month, like dances, carnivals, and hangouts. They bring together teens, tweens, and young adults in a fun, social setting that breaks down the stigma and barriers of neurological differences.

Fantastic Friends has raised $40,000 and brought together 500 participants, volunteers, and families. Marissa is currently a sophomore at Stockton University in Galloway, NJ, where she’s studying speech pathology and communications disorders. She’s also working on opening Fantastic Friends chapters across the United States and knows this could never have happened without the help of the Helen Diller Family Foundation. Marissa won a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award for her generous work.

NOMINATIONS WANTED: Do you know a teen activist who deserves a $36k prize?

We got to talk to her about how this all happened:

What’s your favorite song?

“Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars.

What’s your favorite subject in school?

I like my elective classes. They help me learn about different cultures.

Do you have a favorite author or book?

I read a lot of spiritual articles and philosophy. So I love Rumi and the writings of Buddha.

When did you first understand that your brother was different?

Well, he was diagnosed when he was 2.5. And I knew he was different. But at the same time, I knew he was the same as everyone else. I think he’s unique.

How did you see Matthew being isolated?

He was secluded in that he went to “special needs” classes. But also I just felt like he was separated a lot—at lunch or at recess, people just didn’t know how to interact with him. People were uncomfortable with the way he talked. And it wasn’t just in school. It was when we went to a store. Or even big family functions. People didn’t know how to communicate with him.

How did Fantastic Friends evolve?

The idea came to me the night before Matthew and my 15th birthday (in 2011). A few weeks later, I got together some of my friends and some of his friends and we talked about what we wanted from this group.

Describe a typical event at Fantastic Friends now.

Everybody’s smiling, laughing, high-fiving each other, giving hugs. I see volunteers making these really personal connections. It’s like we’re one big family.

We do one big event each month. And then we have two other chapters outside of my hometown. There’s a chapter that does events once a month at my college. And another chapter that does events once a month just for the siblings.

What’s the hardest part about doing this work?

Honestly, it hasn’t been hard. We’ve had such great support. I guess on a personal level, it’s been hard for me to manage my time. Planning events, recruiting, and training volunteers, you know.

The most rewarding part?

Definitely seeing the new friendships develop. Seeing how my brother is so happy. He gets to be who he really is with people who understand him and appreciate him.

What’s next for Fantastic Friends?

We’re in the process of building our national website, which is exciting. We’re also writing a manual so people can start their own chapters and there can be a uniform way of bringing this to other communities. We have a big social media presence so there’s actually a waitlist now of people who want to do this.

READ: Meet the Jewish Teen Who’s Starting a Food Allergy Labeling Revolution

Who’s your biggest hero and why?

My brother, because he has awakened me to this cause and really inspired me in so many ways. He’s just such a strong person. So caring, innocent, and loving.

Anything else you’d like to say about Fantastic Friends or your Tikkun Olam award?

I am really so honored and humbled to get this award. It’s incredible what the Diller Family Foundation has done, making this vision possible, and I really feel like they believe we’re going to change the world.

And it’s really fun because we do this prom for Fantastic Friends once a year and this year we just made a parody of “Uptown Funk” that we danced to and videoed, and we’re going to post it and invite Bruno Mars to play at the prom. Already, I just posted a rehearsal that I taped on my phone and a quarter of a million people saw it. I really feel like it’s gonna happen!

This post is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit www.dillerteenawards.orgNominations are open for the 2016 awards, now through Dec. 1

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