Marissa Hacker, a freshman Communication Disorders major, learned one of the most important lessons in her life from her twin brother, Matthew, during high school.
Matthew was often excluded and ignored by his peers because he has autism. Seeing her brother emotionally hurt and knowing that there were many other teens out there being treated the same way, she decided to change that. She founded Fantastic Friends: Teens and Tweens Special Needs Social Group, a national organization that provides a welcoming space for young adults, teens and tweens (ages 10-12) with special needs to socialize, relax and have fun through monthly meetings and special events.
Hacker, of Voorhees, said, “I wanted Matthew and other teens with special needs to have a place where they could make friends and feel accepted by their peers. It’s an organization to bring awareness and unconditional support and love. It’s like being a part of a giant family,” she said.
In her first semester at Stockton College, Hacker has already established a Fantastic Friends college chapter. A constitution has been written, a board selected and volunteers have been meeting in preparation for a full launch of the new student organization next semester. Those interested in getting involved can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The group is very close knit. Hacker regularly talks with the members on the phone and never misses one of their birthdays. “I call them my kids,” she smiled.
Most recently, the national Fantastic Friends organization held a “Banksgiving” event to help teach participants about money management skills. Each participant was given grocery circulars and a $100 budget with the task of buying the ingredients to cook a Thanksgiving feast.
Hacker’s favorite event to date was the Disney-themed prom that she says was “incredible.” The event drew about 200 people and made national news.
In the future, Hacker hopes to expand the organization to “make it as big and impactful as possible and to add different services such as career advising, art and music therapy, and sports.”
Her goal is to offer services in all of the areas where teens with special needs could benefit from extra help.
Hacker’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. She was named “South Jersey Superwoman of 2014” by SJ Magazine and received a Young Heroes Award from the National Liberty Museum and TD Bank this past summer.
Hacker’s career path was inspired by a speech pathologist and Stockton graduate who had worked with her twin.
Hacker, who hopes to one day open a speech and hearing clinic in South Jersey, said, “It’s nice to finally take classes that relate to my career.”
Her advice to fellow students is to “be you and let everyone know that you care.”
“I’m very spiritual and believe that the world can be changed through empathetic, sensitive and caring people,” she said.
Hacker thanks her family, the Fantastic Friends volunteers, all of her supporters, and her inspiration, Matthew.