When Candi Carter started a small group at her church, St. Luke’s Episcopal,  for her son four years ago, her plan was to gather teenagers and young adults who were looking for community.

For people like Carter’s 18-year-old son, Emerson, popular teenage outings were not so common. Emerson lives with Chromosome 8p deletion, a rare genetic disorder that causes delays in mental and motor skills.

When kids reached the age where they were allowed to go to the movies or bowling by themselves, Emerson and other kids with special needs were left behind.

“I think a lot of times our kids are invisible because people look at a child in a wheelchair or a child with a disability and say, ‘Well, what does that kid need a friend for?’” Carter said.

But all young people need time to socialize with their peers. So Carter started the Montclair-based nonprofit We’ve Got Friends to provide opportunities for special needs children and young adults – from ages 13 to 21 – to find fellowship through activities and conversations.

“Just having a friend is so important for teens with special needs,” the We’ve Got Friends website says. 

“Once kids can hang out on their own, teens with special needs tend to be at home with no friends around and nothing to do. There are programs that provide sports and targeted activities but nothing where teens with special needs can just hang out, relax and socialize like their typical peers.”

Carter initially started the group with five other families. Since then it has expanded across New Jersey and around the world.

With the help of video conferencing platforms like Zoom, participants in New Jersey get to make connections with people in such places as Canada and South Africa three times a week. 

Conversations can range from a deep dive into Spongebob to trivia games about sports. Jordanna Spaulding, the executive director of We’ve Got Friends, said that what is most important is that the participants have the space and autonomy to do what they want without fear of judgment. 

“In a space where We've Got Friends creates that opportunity, it is absolutely appropriate to talk about this stuff,” Spaulding said. “And it's where you can be yourself and make your friends.” 

Four years after its creation, We’ve Got Friends has chapters in Montclair, West Orange, Chatham and Newark. An East Orange chapter is expected to open this fall. And the organization has plans to expand to New York and Connecticut.

Activities for the group are not limited to video conferencing.

This fall, We’ve Got Friends plans to take its members out for pumpkin and apple picking. A music residency is also scheduled. 

“We’re going to have jam bands,” Spaulding said. “They love music, considering a lot of their different communicative abilities. I consider what brings friends together regardless of their ability to communicate, so if they're nonverbal, or have highly expressive language, what brings them together?”

We’ve Got Friends has also collaborated with Seton Hall University to help the group’s members take part in sports, like basketball and tennis.

There is no cost for parents and guardians who enroll their loved ones in We’ve Got Friends. Through the help of donors, grants and their annual golf fundraiser at Glen Ridge Country Club, which will be held Oct. 31 this year, special needs young people throughout North Jersey get a space curated for them to be themselves. 

As the school year is starting, the group has no intentions of slowing down. On Sept. 24, a Back to School Social will be held at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. 

To enroll a loved one, donate or volunteer, visit We’ve Got Friends (wgfnj.org) online.