Santa Monica resident and high school student Julia Sansing is the founder of Friend in Me, an organization that connects kids with disabilities and neurotypical student volunteers through fun online games and one-on-one conversations on Zoom.

Student-led online social group serves kids with disabilities

By Katie Lulla

For several years, Santa Monica resident Julia Sansing volunteered in an AYSO program that brought kids with disabilities and student volunteers together through soccer. After noticing how hard it was for her brother, who has a diagnosis of autism, to find friends to hang out with – especially during the pandemic – she created Friend in Me, a social group connecting neurodivergent and neurotypical kids from ages 8 to 18.

Sansing hopes that the friendships formed through Friend in Me will persevere past the organization and teach students to reach out to others.

“I’ve always kind of wanted to start a social group for kids with disabilities because I feel like it’s definitely a need out there,” Sansing said. “Not only for the kids with disabilities, but with the volunteers to just interact and build friendships. The idea behind the name Friend in Me is that everyone has the ability to make lasting friendships with different people.”

Sansing gathered participants by reaching out to regional centers for neurotypical minors as well as parent support groups. She found volunteers through mutual friends and by contacting other schools in California. As a result, participants and volunteers have the opportunity to meet students from all over California.

Friend in Me matches volunteers and participants through a form that identifies interests as well as age and gender. Sansing found that participants within the same age range find it easier to relate to one another, but the volunteers skew towards high school while participants vary.

“It’s harder [to get younger volunteers] because they’re not as experienced as older kids are,” Sansing said. “I am definitely trying to expand to earlier grades closer to 5th grade and early middle schools. Reaching out to middle schools would be my next goal for sure.”

Sansing hosts three Zoom sessions: Fridays from 5 to 5:30 p.m., Saturdays from 10:30 to 11 a.m., and Sundays from 4 to 4:30 p.m. All volunteers and participants join one large Zoom session and then are separated into breakout rooms, this way Sansing or any other moderator can assist with technical issues.

The participants and volunteers enjoy a range of activities. Some share their Minecraft worlds and play games such as Roblox and Tic-Tac-Toe, while others simply talk. Afterwards, participants fill out a form evaluating their buddy.

“Overall, our goal is to figure out who works best with one another by what they fill out in their form,” Sansing said. “Then on the Zoom we figure out if we can make them long-term buddies and establish that friendship.”

Ideally, participants have one or two regular buddies, but more active participants can have up to three or four buddies, depending on the buddies’ schedules.
Over time, Sansing has noticed that participants were joining from other time zones and decided to create two sister Zoom sessions that will be run from Chicago and Boston starting in the summer.

“It’s really exciting because I think it’s going to give opportunities for kids,” Sansing said. “They can’t join our Zooms because of time restraints, so it’s nice that we’re able to open up new times for them.”

Friend in Me is also working with Uplift Family Services and is currently working to create a partnership with the Special Olympics. She is positive about the growing connections and destigmatizing of neurodivergent people and is proud to do her part to help.

“I think we still have a lot of work to do, but I think things like Friend in Me and realizing how good of friends people can be especially with differences,” Sansing said. “We’re all different and I think that’s the thing that people have to emphasize and realize.”