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Teen Helps Autistic Kids Find Friendship

Family Ties

Growing up, Marissa Hacker never thought of her autistic twin brother, Matthew, as being different. Instead, she knew him as a quirky, cool boy who loved Disney movies and numbers. But Matthew had trouble connecting with children his own age. "It was heartbreaking," says Marissa, 19, of Voorhees, NJ. Then in July 2011, the day before the twins' 15th birthday, Matthew came home from his special-needs summer camp in tears. "He hadn't made any friends, and he felt really alone," Marissa remembers. "I wanted to help him connect to others, and teach people how to understand him and those like him."

Free to Be Me

Marissa rallied friends and classmates to help her brother. She put word out on Facebook and in the local press, and 20 people showed up to her first get-together for special-needs kids. "Matthew was so excited," Marissa says. She called the group Fantastic Friends. Five years later its monthly socials attract as many as 90 participants, with special-needs members ages 13 to 25 paired with volunteer neurotypical peers. They take trips to places like the aquarium or a miniature golf park—whatever's fun, says Marissa. "When kids first come to the group they're quiet and shy," she adds. "Then they just blossom."

Fantastic Friends does not charge a membership fee. Families pay only the cost of an event or outing, which is usually less than $20. Marissa is grateful for the assistance of local donors as well as the grant money she's received as Youth Ambassador for New Jersey and a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award winner—nearly $66,000 combined to date—which she uses to rent venue space, buy decorations and keep costs low for participants.

Having a Ball

Marissa tries to replicate the typical high school experience for Fantastic Friends kids. Upset that Matthew might never experience a prom, she organized one with a colorful beach theme. The following year costumed Disney characters joined the party guests. And at 2015's Candyland prom, 220 kids danced beneath chandeliers at a glittery Voorhees ballroom.

The twins' mother, Geri Hacker, 53, says Marissa has always supported her brother: "Even at age 2, when Matthew was diagnosed, Marissa insisted on going to his therapy sessions. She instinctively knows and understands what he needs." Matthew, who was never expected to talk, says about his twin: "I'm happy. She's a good sister."

Teenage Dreams

Marissa's dedication to Fantastic Friends didn't end with high school. As a business major at Stockton University, she has started a second Fantastic Friends chapter and a monthly support group for siblings of disabled kids. She hopes to eventually create jobs tailored to the talents of those like Matthew. "People think you have to be older to make a change," Marissa says. "But young people really have the biggest imaginations."

For more information or to donate, visit myfantasticfriends.org.

Photography By:  Jeff Wojtaszek