When Marissa Hacker’s 14-year-old twin brother, Matthew, returned from summer camp one year, he was distraught: No one wanted to be his friend, he said.
Hacker didn’t want her brother, who is autistic, to be left out, so she created Fantastic Friends, an organization fostering friendships for siblings with and without special needs.
In 2015, Hacker received the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award for her leadership in the community, which provided a $36,000 grant and prompted her nonprofit to go national.
It now has multiple chapters, said the Cherry Hill, N.J., native, that host monthly events for kids with special needs to socialize, as well as an annual prom.
Q: How has Fantastic Friends expanded in the past year?
A: “After I won the Diller [Teen Tikkun Olam] Award, I was able to expand Fantastic Friends nationally. We got it to California, New York, Florida, Oregon and Pennsylvania.”
Q: You started this organization when you were 15. Now at 21, what have you learned about the process of creating and running a successful nonprofit?
A: “I learned how to time manage, how other people work, and how to bring together a community of people. I love to learn different styles of communication and how to communicate with all different kinds of people.”
Q: Is there anything you would tell your 15-year-old self now?
A: “I would tell myself not to worry so much because everything always works out. I would tell myself not to be nervous about anything.”
Q: Are you involved with projects outside of Fantastic Friends?
A: “Currently, I work part time for the Diller Teen Awards. I work in outreach, so I help them contact places across the country to expand their outreach and for people to know about the organization and the award. And I’m finishing up my last year of school. I’ll be graduating in May [from Stockton University].”
Q: What are your post-graduation plans? Will you take on Fantastic Friends full time?
A: “Actually this year, all [seven] of the chapters are still running normally, but I kind of took a hiatus because I wanted to figure out my professional life as well as some things in my personal life. But I definitely want to move to the Bay Area. I love San Francisco, so I’m hoping to move out there and get a job [in Jewish philanthropy], and the rest will fall into place. In the future I want to expand Fantastic Friends, but right now my focus is keeping the chapters going.”
Q: Why is Jewish philanthropy such an important part of your life?
A: “Being Jewish is so important to me. I really like a lot of the morals of Judaism and helping repair the world with tikkun olam. I really feel like it’s a good fit.”
Q: You’ve definitely done a lot for these kids and their siblings, but how have they impacted you?
A: “I’m so grateful for our chapter coordinators because they’re the ones who carry out the Fantastic Friends mission. I’m just so proud of them. They’ve impacted me because it showed me that anybody can start whatever they want. It’s just about actually putting it into action and having courage. If someone has courage and is consistent about it, you can get so many people to join your cause and join your force. They’ve taught me to be a better leader and a more compassionate person.”
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