Stepping Up For Special Needs Teens


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Ella Mathewson with some of her friends at We’ve Got Friends

Being a teenager with a mental, physical or learning disability comes with many challenges, not the least of which can be forming friendships with peers. For the past two years, one Verona High School student has been volunteering with a Montclair-based non-profit that is helping to close that gap.

Ella Mathewson learned about We’ve Got Friends from, aptly enough, a friend of her family. It was founded by Candi Carter, the former executive producer of both “The Tamron Hall Show” and “The View,” and the mother of a son with special needs. We’ve Got Friends asks volunteers to model appropriate social interaction for its teenage participants. Mathewson, who will graduate with the class of 2022, has been attending up to three 90-minute sessions a week, on top of her commitments to VHS and club soccer, and a part-time job.

Long before she got involved with the group, Mathewson says she felt drawn to helping her fellow students. “In elementary school, I was always really, really good friends with one of the boys in our grade with special needs,” she says. “It broke my heart when I would see people making jokes behind his back. We’ve Got Friends is an opportunity for me to connect on a deeper level with this population.”

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A program to promote social interaction could have easily fallen apart during the social distancing imposed by the pandemic, but We’ve Got Friends pivoted to Zoom calls, where Mathewson ran its music breakout room. Sometimes, that meant playing tunes on YouTube for a singalong and sometimes the students, mostly boys, would play their own instruments. “They did their own songs, which was great,” says Mathewson.

But it wasn’t always easy because Mathewson is the first to admit that she is, by nature, timid. “I had to come out of my shell a little bit,” she says, “but I found that most of them are actually pretty outgoing, which I wasn’t exactly expecting.” And she’s learned strategies to help program participants to come out of their shells too. “There’s this one boy who is always quiet in the group settings,” Mathewson says of the Zoom calls. “So I asked if I could go into the breakout room, and I found that he really loves jokes. So for an hour, we literally went back and forth with the joke book and he had a great time.”

The volunteer commitment is helping Mathewson to understand that she made the right decision to commit to majoring in occupational therapy at the University of New Hampshire this fall, a five-year program that will combine an undergraduate education with a master’s degree.

Mathewson hopes that some of her VHS peers will join her in volunteering. The minimum age to help is 16, and We’ve Got Friends is now back to holding some of its hangouts in person, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Montclair and on the campus of Seton Hall Prep. It will be opening groups in Newark, Chatham and East Orange soon. The minimum commitment is four hours a month and volunteers get training from the organization. “Whenever I feel uncomfortable in a situation or I don’t know what to say or what to do, I can always go to my supervisors and they help me out,” Mathewson says. (Interested teens can reach out to Mathewson at VHS or apply here.)

Verona families with special needs teenagers can participate in We’ve Got Friends free of charge simply by signing up for a session. For in-person sessions, a parent or guardian must stay at the location. The sign-up for both in-person and virtual groups is here.

“It puts a smile on my face every single time,” Mathewson says of her We’ve Got Friends sessions. “It’s really fulfilling and I love that I’m able to make a difference in someone’s life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

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Virginia Citrano
Virginia Citrano
Virginia Citrano grew up in Verona. She moved away to write and edit for The Wall Street Journal’s European edition, Institutional Investor, Crain’s New York Business and Since returning to Verona, she has volunteered for school, civic and religious groups, served nine years on the Verona Environmental Commission and is now part of Sustainable Verona. She co-founded MyVeronaNJ in 2009. You can reach Virginia at [email protected]


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