Photo of Wolf + Friends co-founders Gena Mann and Carissa Tozzi (from left to right)
Wolf + Friends is a free app made for—and by—moms raising kids with special needs, from developmental delays to autism. Download it on iTunes today, and read on for an interview with one of the founders!
How did the idea come up to start Wolf & Friends?
When my son Wolf was in preschool, his teachers suggested he may have some sensory sensitivities and I was promptly handed a folder of catalogs for some “stuff” that might help. After extensive research, I realized that many of the toys and therapeutic tools I found on these terrifying, clinical websites, were also on Amazon and design-inspired kids shops. So I started curating these sensory tools (rocking chairs, swings, cute headphones, teepees, etc.) on Pinterest and Instagram in a way that felt friendly and fashionable. Then I approached Gena (we have known each other since elementary school and I knew she was raising two boys on the autism spectrum in addition to two girls) with my idea to create an online shopping platform that was inclusive, informative + fun – and she immediately wanted to help. During the first two years of working on our concept, we connected with and really listened to the moms in the special needs community. When asked, they all remarked about the feeling of isolation they experienced as special needs moms. They really needed a way to connect with moms, mentors, and experts in their neighborhoods who they could relate to and trust. That’s when we realized we had to create an app to bring them the community they were craving.
Where does the name come from?
My son Wolf! I am raising him to be aware, compassionate and friendly towards all children. It is important that he (as a “typically” developing child) understands why a child in his class or at camp or on the playground may behave in a certain way and to be kind, understanding, and helpful. My hope is that other parents will teach their “typical” kids to do the same.
What are your backgrounds and how did they lend themselves to this new venture? And how was this something totally new to you both? Please explain?
I’ve spent my career in editorial development, celebrity casting, and public relations, working with major media outlets such as Refinery29, Seventeen magazine, Youtube and MTV, and Gena spent 10 years working as a Photo Editor in New York City for Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine, and CosmoGIRL! We both love design, imagery and inspiring editorial content. While neither of us have a tech background, we have used our skills to create a design-inspired app that will help millions of families raising children with special needs get the support they need.
Why is it so crucial for parents whose kids have special needs to meet other parents who have kids with similar needs?
Gena wrote an amazing essay for Thrive Global that illustrates this exactly. By the time her boys turned 3 and 2, her older son had received an autism diagnosis and her younger son was receiving early intervention services for his various delays….and she didn’t know of anyone with a child who was anything other than typically developing and seemingly “perfect.” Signing up for mommy-and-me classes to meet people wasn’t an option because her boys couldn’t begin to sit for circle time (not to mention she couldn’t even leave the house alone with the two of them because neither had enough receptive language to understand “stop” or “come here”). She was desperate to meet someone who would understand her experience of raising children with special needs.
Your App has a function “Find a Mentor. Be a Mentor.” What does that mean to you?
Moms who are just beginning this journey need to hear from other moms who have been there. And we want to give moms who have been down the road the opportunity to give back by providing insight and support to these moms. Our goal is to help families build a supportive network in their own neighborhood.
Can you describe what Works Well with Others Design Group does and what people can expect from your shop?
Wolf + Friends is collaborating with Works Well With Others Design Group to create a line of merchandise (art print, posters, phone cases, notebooks and tote bags) that is sold on Society6. Our designs represent our motto (Be Nice The End.) and our mission (Surround Yourself With People Who Get It.)
What else can people expect from the app?
In a judgement-free space, members can create a peer-to-peer support system via direct messages and group chats, making connections with new friends and mentors. The community will also have access to a curated content feed where they can read relevant news, shop stylish and developmentally appropriate products, and get lifestyle tips from occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists, child psychologists, behaviorists, financial advisors and other experts.
How has technology changed parenting, in your opinion, for the better? There is so much negative tech talk (too much screen time, etc.) that it’s wonderful to see this amazing app use technology to help parents and kids!
Technology has enabled people around the world to connect. But social media is not real life. Having a couple of friends that get you, especially when you are parenting children with learning differences, is what everyone really needs. Through our app we are encouraging people to meet in real life, not just be an observer/fly on the wall to someone else’s life in a curated feed.
What are your hopes for the future of Wolf + Friends? For the next 6 months? Year? 5 years?
The feedback for our app has been amazing! Currently the app is only available in the US on IOS…so we are focused on developing the app for Android users and releasing our app around the world (we are getting messages every day from moms around the country and the world who want our app). And then we want to have events that bring our community together.