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“Friend In Me”: Creating Inclusive Social Opportunities for Individuals with Disabilities

My brother, Troy, has a special ability to make people laugh; however, he frequently sits alone in class. In June of 2020, my sister and I launched a non-profit organization that offers a free online buddy service called “Friend in Me,” a name we borrowed from the unforgettable theme song from my brother’s all-time favorite film, which he refers to as “Troy Story.” Disabled children are paired with student volunteers for free online games and conversation every week through a Zoom event.

Troy loves sharing knock-knock jokes. While Azzie is fascinated by black holes, Zach insists on playing the 50 states game every week. But they all find a common bond in “Friend in Me”. I’m deeply touched when parents tell me that their children’s first friendships have stemmed from “Friend in Me”.

Friend In Me: Creating Inclusive Social Opportunities for Individuals with Disabilities

It’s just as satisfying to change the minds of our volunteers. As they get to know their buddies’ individual personalities and gifts, their preconceptions about neurodiversity shift. Mine did as well.

“To communicate, my son Jack, who is non-verbal, types into a voice generator,” one parent said. I offered to take him because I work with kids who need the most support. I was so glad I did. Jack blew away every assumption I had made about him. He had a sharp wit, a girlfriend before I did, and the skills to beat me in chess almost every week.

Our Zoom events have been the best part of my week, from Alec’s historic Scrabble victories to Gilberto’s hilarious Zoom names to Wyatt’s beatboxing in the main room. We only had six kids participate in the beginning, but since then nearly a thousand have joined across the country. But in the past year, I’ve come to realize just how much our service is needed beyond our borders.

Angeti: Creating Inclusive Social Opportunities for Individuals with Disabilities in Cameroon

Earlier this year, Marguerite Biboum, president of a Cameroonian foundation for disabled children, sent us an email inquiring about our services. I was shocked to find out that the neurodiverse there are stigmatized because they are thought to be possessed by the devil or a divine punishment for the sins of their parents. I had always wanted to take “Friend in Me” global, but I wasn’t expecting our first expansion to be to a third-world country where people spoke a different language. On the other hand, after hearing these accounts, I was motivated to take “Friend in Me” to Africa in an effort to both dispel these harmful myths and provide these kids with their only link to the outside world.

After seven months of preparations, we finally released “Angeti,” the first service of its kind in Cameroon. Like “Friend in Me”, “Angeti” connects kids with special needs and a volunteer or therapist once a week via Zoom for free online games and conversation. To further assist parents in managing their children’s behaviors and using our service, we provide free education and training from specialists in the United States.

It was extremely humbling to learn about the systemic discrimination that neurodiverse children face in that country. Their hardships are a sobering reminder of how societies often fear the unknown and those that are different. Still, I have faith that we can make a difference and become advocates for neurodiversity in Africa through our efforts.

Before meeting “Friend in Me” and “Angeti”, most of my friends had been classmates and neighbors. I now realize, in the most personal way, that the human need for connection knows no borders.


Drew Sansing
Co-Founder and Co-President, Friend In Me

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the NLM Family Foundation.

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