A college sophomore is about to take her nonprofit national.
Marissa Hacker always looks out for her twin brother Matthew. She counsels him like a mother — after all, she is older by one minute — but they still squabble like the siblings they are.
Matthew is autistic. Marissa said he’s always been very outgoing and kind but had some trouble making new friends.
Before their 15th birthday, Matthew returned from his summer camp, distraught because no one wanted to be his friend. That’s when the idea popped into her head: Marissa wanted to create a way for Matthew and other children with special needs to make friends in a safe and welcoming environment.
Almost four years later, the 19-year-old’s organization, Fantastic Friends, is on the verge of going national.
Fantastic Friends is a nonprofit that hosts monthly events to give kids with special needs the opportunity to socialize and interact. Their siblings can also partake in the fun.
At its first event in September 2011, Marissa said there were only 20 people. Today, Fantastic Friends has impacted a total of more than 500 volunteers, members and families and has raised $30,000 to fund the organization’s events.
“I always wanted to start something, but [Matthew] was the driving force,” she said. “I just want everyone to have the opportunity to be connected to friendship and to feel loved and cared for.”
Marissa said her Jewish upbringing greatly impacted how she wants to help others.
“Tikkun olam is one of the main principles of Judaism, and I really wanted to use tikkun olam and Fantastic Friends to help people and repair the world. In the sense of leadership,” she said. It “means being fearless and putting yourself out there. You can help other people, and you can get other people to join you on your mission.”
Marissa was recently awarded the 2015 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award for her leadership with Fantastic Friends. She plans to put most of the $36,000 grant she received toward furthering the success of Fantastic Friends and the rest toward her college education at Stockton University, where she will soon begin her sophomore year.
Marissa wants to ultimately expand Fantastic Friends internationally. For now, she is working on making it an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization so she can develop chapter groups across the country. She is putting the finishing touches on the national Fantastic Friends website and eventually wants to publish chapter booklets to teach people how to set up Fantastic Friends in their hometowns.
She also developed a board of eight volunteers to help manage the South Jersey chapter of Fantastic Friends while she plans her national endeavors.
Currently, Fantastic Friends has several groups, including one for teens, ’tweens and young adults, one for siblings of kids with special needs, and an advocacy chapter at Stockton University to educate students about people with special needs.
The Cherry Hill-based Jewish Community Foundation, Inc., sponsors the organization, which allows the group to travel all over South Jersey for monthly events like pajama parties, mini golf, aquarium visits and concerts.
Group events usually consist of an equal amount of participants and volunteers so that every kid is paired with a helper. On average, she said, 70 to 90 people attend.
Fantastic Friends is not the only way Marissa practices tikkun olam. She just completed a month-long internship in New York with Autism Speaks, learning how to spread autism awareness through social media.
She is also involved with Hillel at Stockton and volunteers at the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill for a week in the summer where she works with nonverbal children and helps them learn to socialize.
Marissa is studying speech pathology at Stockton so she can continue to help kids learn how to communicate.
“I’ve been volunteering my whole life,” she said. “It just makes my heart feel good.”
Each year, Fantastic Friends hosts a prom, and this year was no exception. More than 200 people attended the Candyland-themed prom last month, its biggest event yet.
At the end of the night, everyone screamed, “I love Fantastic Friends” for a video. For Marissa, everything she has worked toward culminated in the love, energy and spirit she felt with everyone at that moment.
“It just felt like everyone was together and there for each other,” she said. “The reason I do Fantastic Friends is because of love.”
And that love stems from the inspiration behind most of her ventures: her brother.
Marissa said it’s difficult both as a sister and as a feeling human being to deal with people who are blatantly rude or mean to Matthew when he simply says hello or asks for a hug, especially since she knows he has the best of intentions. She said he is funny, innocent and has the biggest heart.
In response, Matthew said, “You’re a great sister.”
Contact: [email protected]; (215-832-0737).