Youth Forward Scholarship Winter 2017 – Best Friends Forever

Name: Mitchell Hensley
From: Mineola, New York
Grade: 10
School: Chaminade
Votes: 0

Best Friends Forever
Having grown up with a cousin with Asperger’s I recognized the
difficulties this affliction placed on both parents and siblings and
the lack of coordinated support available within my community. In
2015 I partnered with St. Dominic Roman Catholic church in Oyster
Bay, New York to create Friday Friends – a respite program for
children with special needs and their families. The next year I
helped mentor a second Friday Friends program in my neighboring town
and the collective program has now grown from 11 to 135 participants.

Friday Friends is free and available to participants of all races,
religions, and genders. Respite is offered to families of children
with special needs, such as Down syndrome, Autism, Asperger’s, and
Cerebral Palsy. The program offers an invaluable service to special
needs families that provides professional and volunteer supervision,
care, camaraderie, and support. Parents entrust their children to
Friday Friends for two hours on Friday evenings in order to have a
respite from their almost continuous job of providing care. Friday
Friends provides a safe, fun and rewarding experience for all

I gained real-world experience starting Friday Friends. Experience that
undoubtedly helped prepare me for my future at college and,
hopefully, as a physician. The skills I’ve learned range from
researching and learning program requirements to establishing a
non-profit organization, and communicating with community leaders to
overall project and time management. I coordinated with local schools
and parents, created a program mission and plan, fundraised,
recruited certified professional volunteers (Nurse and Social
Worker), recruited adult and student volunteers, and learned how to
interact with special needs children.

While I volunteer four hours each week and other volunteers also sacrifice
many hours to this cause, Friday Friends pays us forward in so many
ways. Student volunteers and I gain an understanding of what it means
to have special needs and we move beyond stereotypes to truly
befriend fellow children that have so much to offer in this world. We
learn to communicate and listen more effectively. Special needs
family members get a welcome break from their daily struggles and
parents get to witness their children in a light they’ve never seen
before. Children with special needs are able to relax, be themselves,
and gain self-confidence – and better understand Social Worker and
Nurse communications. Looking forward, Friday Friends will help
people see these special children for the abilities and not for their
disabilities. It will provide the confidence in both volunteers and
recipients to enable a more positive place in the world for many
years to come.

My biggest challenge was the initial struggle with balancing my time
among this program, studying, rowing crew, clubs, and just
socializing with my friends and family. I have worked hard to
progressively improve upon and excel in all of these aspects of my
life. Overall, I firmly believe that this experience and these kids
with special needs helped me to excel and become the best version of
my high school self.

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