My twin, Troy, can make anyone laugh, especially me. But at school, he often sits isolated. To address the isolation that Troy and so many other kids experience, my sister and I co-founded Friend in Me, a social group that connects kids with disabilities and neurotypical student volunteers through weekly conversations and fun and free online games via Zoom.
We drew inspiration for the name from the iconic theme of my brother’s favorite movie, “Toy Story,” which he calls “Troy Story.”
Troy loves knock-knock jokes. Zach is obsessed with the 50 states game, while Azzie is fascinated by black holes. Yet, in Friend in Me, they all find connection. I love hearing from parents how Friend in Me has given their children their first friendships.
It’s equally rewarding to transform the thinking of our volunteers. Their perspectives about the neurodiverse community change as they get to know their buddies’ unique personalities and strengths. Mine did, too.
“My son, Jack, is nonverbal and speaks by typing into a voice generator,” a parent explained. Since I partner with kids that need the most support, I volunteered to take him. I’m so glad I did. Jack blew away all my preconceived notions. He had a sharp wit, a girlfriend before I did and the skills to beat me at chess almost every week.
From Alec’s epic Scrabble victories to Gilberto’s hilarious Zoom names to Wyatt’s beatboxing in the main room, our sessions have been the highlight of my week. Starting with only six members, now more than 800 kids have joined nationwide. However, over the last year I learned how much our service is needed outside our borders.
Near the beginning of this year, an email arrived from Marguerite Biboum, president of Fondation Les Anges du Ciel, a Cameroonian nonprofit for disabled kids, asking about our service. I was shocked to learn that the neurodiverse there are considered possessed by the devil or a divine punishment for their parents’ sins, resulting in their isolation, mistreatment or worse. I had planned to expand Friend in Me internationally, but not in a developing country with another language. However, hearing these stories inspired me to expand Friend in Me to help dispel these dangerous myths.
After seven months of preparation, we launched Angeti, the first service of its kind in Cameroon. Like Friend in Me, Angeti offers kids with disabilities free online games and conversation once a week with a volunteer or therapist over Zoom. We also offer free education and training from U.S. experts to help their parents manage behaviors and participate in our service.
Learning about the deep-rooted prejudices neurodiverse kids face there was deeply humbling, leaving me with both guilt and gratification. Their struggles, amplified by intense stigmas and misconceptions, are a grim reminder of how society fears the unfamiliar. Yet, I’m optimistic that our efforts will help change perceptions and champion neurodiversity there and beyond.
Before Friend in Me and Angeti, my sense of friendship had been largely limited to kids from my school and neighborhood. I now realize, in the most personal way, that the human need for connection knows no borders.
Drew Sansing, along with his sister, Julia Sansing, is a co-founder of Friend in Me. To learn more, or sign up to participate or volunteer, visit friendinmegroup.org.