In 2016, two Connecticut moms launched wolfandfriends.com and, last year, the Wolf + Friends app, reaching about 40,000 in the special-needs community

By Eileen Finan
April 19, 2019 02:00 PM
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Andrew White/The New York Times/Redux

When Danielle Mager‘s only son Noah was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder a year and a half ago, she wasn’t sure who else would understand.

“Being a special-needs mom is isolating,” says Mager, 32, of Oxford, Michigan, in a chat with PEOPLE for this week’s issue. “It’s hard to find other moms who get it.”

Then, last year she discovered an app called Wolf + Friends, where parents of children with special needs can connect, and it was “life-changing.” Through the app, which helps match parents whose children have similar special needs, she met another mom with a child on the spectrum who lives only 15 minutes away, and she and Noah, now 4, had their first play date.

“I can’t relate to just everybody — my son is non-verbal and he doesn’t really play like a typical child,” she says. “Just finding that one person who can 100 percent relate, and you can laugh about things together and talk about your hopes and dreams, that’s a big deal for us special moms.”

Gena Mann says she felt that same sense of isolation years ago when she learned her two sons, now 15 and 16, were on the spectrum. “My kids were in therapy all day and my life was so different from the other moms I knew,” she tells PEOPLE.

So when her friend Carissa Tozzi reached out with the idea of creating an online community for parents of children with special needs, Mann was completely on board.

In 2016, the two Connecticut-based moms launched wolfandfriends.com — and last year, the Wolf + Friends app which, along with the website and a newsletter, reaching about 40,000 in the special-needs community.

The idea began after Tozzi, 47, was told by teachers at her son Wolf’s preschool that they noticed he had trouble calming himself and he might have sensory-processing issues. Alarmed, she began searching through therapy sites, looking for toys to help, but was disappointed in what she found. “None of it was presented in a way that was inspiring,” she tells PEOPLE. “It was all very doom and gloom.”

Drawing on their background in fashion and publishing (the two had met while working at CosmoGirl), Tozzi and Mann, 45, dreamed up an online space that would provide a stylishly presented list of products (curated with input from experts in the field) geared toward kids with special needs — things like adaptive clothing, sensory regulation toys and books to combat anxiety.

Tozzi soon learned that Wolf, now 7, did not, in fact, have special needs, but her experience fueled a mission: “I wanted to create a space that was a little bit more welcoming, more modern, more inspiring,” she says. “Something that would make shopping for them a more pleasant experience.”

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But quickly, the two moms saw that these parents needed more than a shopping list. “We realized that the most important thing to offer them is an opportunity to see that there were other moms like them that they can connect with nearby,” Tozzi says.

Through the app, a parent can share their location and, by identifying their child’s unique special needs, connect with someone nearby who has a similar story.

“Social support is very, very important for parents of children with special needs,” says Robin Dodds, an assistant professor of early childhood special education at Cal State L.A. who is also on the board with Parent to Parent USA, a non-profit that matches parents who have children with special needs with mentor parents. “Having someone who’s walked in your shoes to talk to creates a sense of trust. When you’re just working with professionals you always have in the back of your head, ‘That’s all well and good, but you don’t live this every day.’ ”

In the app (available now on iOS, and soon on Android devices), Tozzi and Mann have tried to make a space for those relationships to grow that’s not only functional but positive. From their Pinterest-worthy visuals to branded clothing boasting motivational messages (e.g., “I am still learning.”; “Be kind the end.” “Surround yourself with people who get it.”), “their whole vibe is fun,” Mager tells PEOPLE.

Dodds, whose own son and daughter both have special needs, adds one note of caution: As a for-profit venture, an app like Wolf + Friends needs to be careful not to take advantage of its users.

“Apps that use your data can be a real lion’s den. When parents have a new diagnosis, they’re really in a fragile state and they’re very vulnerable,” she says. “The things that parents of children with special needs get marketed at them can sometimes be dangerous and noneffective.”

Tozzi and Mann say they’re conscious of that risk. “We have been and will continue to be extremely careful about anyone we choose as an advertiser,” Mann tells PEOPLE. “We’re not taking on advertisers selling alternative therapies or things that are untested. We never would want to prey on this community of moms.”

After all, she’s one of them. “This app is for me — or maybe for me 10 years ago when my kids were younger and I was feeling so alone,” Mann says. “Now it feels so good to be able to reach those moms who were like I was back then and say, ‘You’re not alone, and we’re going to help you find friends.’ ”

For more on Tozzi, Mann and Wolf + Friends, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.