2017-04-02 / Insight

Forever Friends Network offers support for people with autism

BY NICHOLAS PUGLIESE
810-452-2601 •

LAPEER — Regina Starr is a strong woman because she has to be. Her son Brandon is 18 years old and was diagnosed with autism at an early age, and ever since, each day has been a struggle with the disease, but it hasn’t been without joy, either.

Starr is a single mom, and life with Brandon has taught her valuable lessons on the impact autism has not only on the person suffering with it, but on families and the entire community. “That boy is my life,” said Starr. “And if I can bring awareness to other families in the county, I’m going to try.”

Starr was formerly the hospitality coordinator with a local autism support group, and when it dissolved she was driven to continue the effort to do her part to help those with autism and their families to achieve a sense of normalcy and community. “I knew that we just had to keep going,” said Starr.

So the Forever Friends Network (FFN) was born. FFN’s mission is to bring autism awareness and acceptance to Lapeer County and to make lasting friendships for a lifetime. Forever Friends Network is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization established in April 2016 established by Starr and currently holds meetings twice a month where children and families touched by autism can be social, be themselves and not be judged. FFN operates with a board of directors, featuring Starr as president and founder, with Betty Decker as vice president, Sabrina Hemerline as treasurer and Luann Holcomb as hospitality coordinator.

“The board I have is incredible,” said Starr. “There’s passion there and we just try to meet the need, and we won’t stop.” FFN recently received a grant from the Lapeer County Community Foundation (LCCF), with which 10 new iPads were purchased for use during the bi-monthly social gatherings.

“My main goal is to provide support,” said Starr. “It’s a support group, but it’s also a social function, where these kids can make friends that last a lifetime.” Starr said that often, when new families come to FFN gatherings, she is approached afterward by parents who can’t contain their joy seeing their children accepted and cherished by others.

“When autistic kids age out of school at 18 years old, they have nothing else for social interaction,” said Starr. “FFN provides these kids and outlet for interacting with peers and others, and a lot of times, you can see them come right out of their shells.”

FFN accepts donations and volunteers and is looking to expand in the coming year, as the organization has grown considerably in the last several months. Seventy families are currently involved with FFN.

“LCCF saw what we wanted for the kids and offered to help,” said Starr. “But we’ve gotten help from so many other community groups and businesses as well.”

According to Starr, FFN has received donations from the Metamora Lioness Club, Lapeer Kiwanis, WGS, Cheers Bar and Grill and Jesse Delling. Hungry Howie’s supplies free pizza to the group for every meeting. “I just want to be part of the community,” said Starr. “And that’s all the kids want too.”

With FFN’s one year anniversary on the horizon, Starr reflected on the purpose of the organization and the goals for the future. “I work every day, from the moment I get up to the moment I go to bed,” said Starr. “So many people just don’t know (about autism) and that’s why I don’t stop, so when I see the kids smiling and socializing every week, how they can come and be themselves, and how we let parents know they’re not alone, that’s what it’s for.”

Starr credits Brandon for making her the woman she is today, and said that the positive impact he has had on her life has dramatically outweighed the difficulty of autism. “He’s taught me to be more forgiving and to see that the unachievable is achievable.”

FFN meets on the first and third Friday of every month at Maple Grove Elementary, where kids with autism and their families can enjoy weekly themed activities free of charge. Anyone is welcome. FFN can be found online at www.foreverfriendsnetwork.net and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/FFNRS/

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