MIDDLETOWN — Last month, a new nonprofit organization was publicly introduced, hoping to fill the gaps in resources and services that may be inaccessible or inadequate for Monmouth County teens with special needs. And the group's founder is still a teenager herself.

She is 17-year-old Sophia Ziajski and she spearheads Friends Connect Foundation, which focuses on establishing lasting friendships between special needs kids and their neurotypical peers. And it's not just teens with sensory issues or intellectual disabilities that they serve, but also those who are physically impaired, whether through sight, hearing, or something else.

"Our mission is just to promote self-discovery, the formation of long-term friendships, and the development of social skills in teens with special needs, because there's such an underserved population in this area," Ziajski said.

Ziajski has been gradually developing her idea since middle school, when she began volunteering for the New Jersey-based chapter of another organization, Best Day Foundation. Through that experience, plus integrated classes and extracurricular activities at school, she learned sign language and other special skills, and got to know more about her classmates with disabilities and their families.

At one point, she met a family who had a younger son with special needs who was going into middle school while his sister was moving up to high school, and wouldn't be nearby to assist her brother. He was shunned and even bullied, which Ziajski found was common for those with disabilities.

Different groups she and that family researched, in the interest of finding friendships, had long waitlists and pricey fees.

So Ziajski organized two social events of her own, last August and October, that spurred her to officially begin the process of creating Friends Connect. Despite some initial challenges because she is still a minor, the foundation was officially incorporated with 501(c)(3) status this past spring.

Friends Connect Foundation offers four-week long programs in five areas: fitness (meaning health and wellness), self-expression (art), music, social skills, and community service — the last of which provides an opportunity to pay it forward by creating goodie bags for Best Day, the organization that ignited Ziajski's passion for learning more about and helping her peers.

But the hope is that the relationships forged through Friends Connect Foundation will last far beyond those four weeks.

Ziajski made the point that all of her efforts to help those with special needs have been self-motivated, and she is seeking volunteers with the same mindset.

"Our goal is to ensure that everybody has at least one friend in their life that they could have depended on to uplift them and support them, whether that be through hobby development or social skills development or whatever it may be," she said.

Find out more at friendsconnectfoundation.org.

Patrick Lavery is Senior Producer of Morning News and Special Programming for New Jersey 101.5, and is lead reporter and substitute anchor for "New Jersey's First News." Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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