GLEN RIDGE, NJ — We’ve Got Friends, a local nonprofit organization providing teens and young adults with special needs with the opportunity to connect with their peers, held its second golf classic and dinner at the Glen Ridge Country Club on Monday, Aug. 23.
The golf outing, however, was postponed until this coming Monday, Aug. 30, because of inclement weather from Hurricane Henri to the east. But the dinner was served, attracting an enthusiastic crowd, including the beating heart of WGF: the teens, young adults and parents who have benefited profoundly from the organization.
WGF was started four years ago by New Jersey resident Candi Carter, an Emmy Award–winning TV producer. She was inspired by her son, Emerson, 18, who has special needs. According to the program notes for the Aug. 23 event, Carter started WGF after realizing her son had very few friends and little or no social activities outside of school.
“What started as a hangout for Emerson and a few teens has evolved into a supportive community for hundreds of teens with special needs throughout New Jersey,” according to the notes.
The first site for WGF “hangouts” was St. Luke’s Church, in Montclair, whose pastor, the Rev. John Mennell, was honored at the dinner. Also honored for their support were Brian Meehan and Holly Robinson Peete.
According to WGF Executive Director Ann Marie Manahan, in addition to Montclair, sites have opened in Newark, West Orange and Chatham, with another anticipated in East Orange. The special needs individuals currently being served range in age from 12 to 21; approximately 80 families are currently active in WGF.
“What we do is universal,” Manahan said. “There are no distinctions. Everyone can be touched by someone in their family with special needs. The sense of isolation of a special needs individual is something they feel every day.”
Although WGF participation is free, Manahan said it costs about $15,000 annually to operate each site, which is staffed by paid professionals. She hopes the golf and dinner events will garner $200,000 for the organization, which would be quite an accomplishment, as these funds are generally coming from young people. Grant monies from established businesses such as ADP, Walmart and Investors Bank also help. According to Manahan, WGF has aspirations to have its hangouts go nationwide.
Several parents and their children spoke about the benefits of WGF. West Orange resident Gina Rivas-Velazquez said her son, Nick, looks forward to the next hangout whether it is in person or virtual.
“I see a change in him,” Rivas-Velazquez said. “Now he has a lot of friends, instead of just one.”
And when Nick is meeting virtually with his friends in his room, she cannot come in: He wants to be left alone.
“This has taught him independence,” she said, adding that Nick no longer relies on her to RSVP to the group to let them know he’ll be joining them; he does it himself now. “That’s a drastic change. It’s his group, and he’s in charge.”
Rivas-Velazquez said that during the pandemic lockdowns, virtual WGF hangouts were Nick’s only social lifeline.
“When you don’t have friends, who are you going to socialize with?” she said.
East Hanover resident Mary Ann Cece’s son, Robert, also has special needs and benefits from WGF.
“We’ve Got Friends is a window to the world for him,” she said. “In person or virtual, there’s no stigma.… It’s a place where he belongs. It’s all kindness and acceptance and no competition.”
Now, with the opportunity to connect with others and make friends, Cece said her son does not speak to strangers in public so much anymore, or touch them to get their attention. That, she said, was a bad habit he picked up in a special needs school.
“We’ve Got Friends also helped me to accept my kid more,” she said. “There was shame, but here, he’s OK and he might not be such a burden on society. Maybe there will be a place for him when I’m not around.”
West Orange resident Dexter Evans and his son, Gabriel, were also at the dinner. Gabriel said he likes to play his guitar for his virtual WGF friends. His father said, before the hangouts, the instrument just sat in the corner, but to his surprise, Gabriel picked it and started playing it for his friends, however rudimentary his skills.
“We provided things for him,” Evans said about himself and his wife, “but with We’ve Got Friends, this came out. He never had lessons, but now we’re thinking of him taking lessons.”
Photos by Daniel Jackovino