AUSTIN (KXAN) — Two Central Texans are building an online community for adults with special needs, one video chat at a time.

Friends Shine Online launched in June 2021 as a virtual network for adults in the special needs community.

Central Texans Mary Maluski and Celeste Thompson launched the group, informed by more than 25 years of experience working with and raising people with disabilities. Maluski has worked as a teacher in special education programs, while Thompson has worked in the school system and also has a son with special needs.

“The whole premise of the program is to reach those hard-to-reach places, or those that don’t have the opportunity that maybe some of the bigger cities have,” Thompson said. “Our goal is to get out there, especially in the smaller communities, and reach those friends that are sitting at home and would like to develop those friendships and have some interaction in their day.”

The majority of the adults they worked with came from life skills programs, or curricula that center around teaching skill sets for those with disabilities as they transition into adulthood. Some have partial employment opportunities, while others don’t have a line of work.

With Friends Shine Online, Maluski and Thompson said the interactive virtual sessions feature small groups of up to 15 participants. Some of the activities include going over news and community events, learning American Sign Language, hosting a book club, exercising and going over chore demonstrations.

The two worked with transition services within Round Rock ISD, programs centered around students ages 18 to 22 years old who’d finished their high school credits but still qualified for services with the district. Maluski and Thompson provided those services virtually for a year before a parent mentioned her son was graduating soon and asked about resources for him after he finished his time with RRISD.

That’s how the idea for Friends Shine Online was born.

“Basically, we are a continuation of what we did in the school system for the community,” Thompson said.

In the year and a half since the program’s launched, Maluski said participants have gotten more ingrained in the virtual community.

“The group has gotten more and more loving and interested in one another,” she said. “They’ve gotten to know each other better. We’ve gotten people that we used to have in transition services…everybody just seems really interested in each other.”

Right now, Friends Shine Online has between five and 15 slots open for participants. The group has mostly been word of mouth, but the two said if the organization grows, they’re going to launch a waiting list until they have enough to form a new group and hire others to help with the sessions.

While the two are based in Central Texas, their reach is throughout Texas and even beyond. Their hope is that these structured sessions can remove geographic barriers that might impact residents in smaller communities, while teaching them new skills and helping them find a sense of place and purpose.

“How effective are we at getting our students moved onto the next phase of their life?” Maluski asked. “Are they working? Are they in a day [habilitation]? Are they doing something productive in society….It gets kind of tough when you’re just around your own family all the time. You need some other friends, other people to talk to.”