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Rising Stars: Meet Denise Lemons

Today we’d like to introduce you to Denise Lemons, Co-Founder of The Friendship Factor, shares their story with us below:

The Friendship Factor is a registered non-profit co-founded by two Culver City single Moms, Denise LeMons and Josie Sandoval. Both parents of neurodivergent children and disability advocates. Our connection began as our families living in the same condo complex, our sons attended the same school, and we would go trick-or-treating together. In the past two years, our friendship as Mothers has grown closer, now both co-parenting our 9 and 8-year-old sons, we’ve come together with heightened purpose.

Along our path, we “identified a void in special need’s social skills training for more enriching, cultural, and fun experiences that could spur authentic social interaction for kids and families and serve as a bridge to fostering friendships for individuals with and without disabilities. We set out to provide such a resource-The FRiENDSHiP FACTOR-in June of 2021, our 1st summer inclusion camp launched to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion for neurodiverse and neurotypical children and their families. Consulting with behavioral and occupational therapists to develop a program curriculum offering opportunities for natural environment teaching, social-emotional development, physical activity, sensory play, and creative projects to encourage curiosity, teamwork, self-confidence, empathy, and belonging through shared experiences and peer support.

The camp offers an immersive approach to helping children develop friendships and learn inclusion among neurodiverse and typically developing children, all while – most importantly – having fun in a safe and socially supportive environment. Our camp curriculum is based on a four Pillar Program: Play it Forward, Snack & Chat, Join & Learn, and Relax & Reset, all fundamental practices that support positive sociability, mindfulness, and well-being.

We had such great participation from local kids and families during a summer when many recreational resources were closed or online only due to the pandemic/COVID measures. When the new school year came around, kids would shout out The Friendship Factor when they saw us on campus and parents were asking if we were doing the camp again. We knew there was a need we could fulfill and serve more families by registering as a non-profit. Here we are today with three Board Members, a Part-Time Certified Behavior Analyst on staff, and volunteers, entertaining new partnerships and collaborations, and our 2nd Summer Inclusion Camp underway!

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
When our Camp first launched as a proof of concept, we knew we wanted to have a niche that would differentiate us from others and serve the neurodiverse community. To offer more immersive, elevated, fun activities, field trips and educational events, this would require additional funding. We knew of successful fundraising from online platforms, so we partnered with ioby.org through an online crowdfunding campaign, and with generous donations from friends and families, we successfully funded 100% of Camp expenditures-exceeding our donation goals!

Now as a registered non-profit, we have to run our organization like a startup and operate like a lean machine. We are strategizing about how to generate revenue, acquire more donors, retain funders, and fundraise more effectively to raise enough revenue to accomplish our year-round programming goals. Everyone on our team plays a role, from board members to volunteers, working together to work efficiently to generate revenue and awareness of our cause. We are focused on building relationships with organizations that align with our mission and can lead to long-term partnerships. We just made a substantial investment in CRM software to better manage our operational logistics and optimize our constituent database.

We have a 3-year strategic plan, and at times it can seem very daunting and overwhelming, but all members are passionate about our purpose and look to our mission statement whenever we get off course: To develop and expand an immersive approach to raising resilient and empathetic children while advancing the neurodiverse community.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
Denise is a creative professional with years of experience in manufacturing, design, and product development for global fashion and consumer brands. Josie is an expert in the financial services industry, specializing in securities and investments.

Are there any books, apps, podcasts or blogs that help you do your best?
We Co-founders are very active engaging with the special needs/neurodiversity Instagram community for information, inspiration, ideas, and support.  In this digital space there is less judgment, and you can relate to others who have empathy, understanding, and share in similar joys and struggles of parenting neurodivergent kids. Some of our favorite go-to podcasts are Glennon Doyle-We can do Hard Things, Brene Brown-Unlocking Us, and Helping Kids Thrive-Wolf & Friends.

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