Inspired by the success of Big & Mini, an Austin-based program that pairs college students with an older generation for one-on-one virtual connections during the pandemic, University of Texas senior Chelsea Vu thought the same thing could be done with neurotypical kids and kids with autism or other disabilities.
Her inspiration was her brother, Ben, who is 16 and has autism. "He’s opened up in the past few years, but forming friendships is really hard for him," she says.
During the pandemic, kids with disabilities can feel especially cut off socially, she says. Even before this, many of the kids have dealt with feeling excluded or being bullied.
That’s why she created FAM, which stands for Friends and Mentors.
Big & Mini, she says, "is trying to bridge the generational gap between seniors and a young person. My program is bridging the social gap."
Volunteers who are high school and college students agree to a video meeting once a week for 40 minutes with a child or young adult who has a disability.
Since it got started in June, 20 volunteers and 14 kids have signed up with FAM. Volunteers are coached on what to do if a participant is shy or is acting up. Parents of the participants are around, and each call usually has two volunteers on it to help create the conversation. Usually, for the first call, Vu or a friend who works with kids with disabilities will attend to make sure everything goes smoothly.
"A lot of the volunteers are pretty nervous at first," she says. "A lot have not interacted with kids with disabilities before."
Sometimes it might take a few attempts before the person with disabilities feels comfortable joining the call, and that’s OK.
Vu gives the volunteers ideas for what they can do. Sometimes it’s show and tell, or telling a story, but often it’s just talking about what each person is interested in.
When Vu’s brother, Ben, attends his call with volunteers, he gets his room set up an hour before because he likes to do show and tell, she says.
"He gets really excited about it," Vu says. "It’s definitely something he looks forward to every week."
Volunteers have mainly been people she’s known or who have connected with her over Facebook. One volunteer is from India and does a morning chat here, when it’s nighttime there.
"A lot of (volunteers) are feeling the social isolation themselves," she says. "They want to have social interaction also and want to have something to help."
The program will continue into the school year, and Vu says even if the pandemic ends, there is still a need for it.
"I really want to provide a platform where young people with and without disabilities can form friendships together," she says. "If I can help people with disabilities feel that their friendship is valued as much as anyone else’s, it’s helping to erase the stigma surrounding disabilities."
Volunteers and kids with disabilities can sign up at bigandmini.org/famsite.