With the Irish football season underway, there is no doubt that Charlie Weis is a busy man. But off the field, his family devotes many hours to their charity, Hannah and Friends.
The organization was inspired by Charlie and Maura's 12-year-old daughter, who was born with special needs. Coach Weis and his wife Maura started Hannah and Friends in 2003.
Over the past four years, the charity has blossomed into a major organization, helping hundreds of kids in our area with special needs. NewsCenter 16’s Sarah Platt sat down with Maura Weis to talk about how Hannah and Friends has progressed since the family moved to Michiana in 2004.
You might call it a “mom and pop" operation. With a small staff, Hannah and Friends' headquarters is in the basement of the Weis' Granger home. But the amount of people Hannah and Friends has helped and the supporters it has are far from small.
“And it's grown, tripled since we started, it's been amazing,” says Maura Weis. “I have a great help, Sharon Bui is our Executive Director. She's fantastic.”
Whether it is financial help or volunteers, Maura says Michiana has responded in a big way. “But, also we get some amazing stories about children having birthday parties and donating some of that money, instead of gifts, from 10-year-olds. Even people are recycling cans to send us money,” adds Maura.
This summer, Hannah and Friends broke ground on its new residential community, a place for those with special needs to live and work.
“I think everyone should be given that opportunity, to have their child and live the fullest life that they can possibly live, it's really just important,” says Maura.
Hannah, the original inspiration behind the groundbreaking, was all smiles that day. “Once everybody gave her a couple rounds of applause, she was there for more, but she was really peaceful and I really love that. I thought it was great.”
But aside from the focus of getting the group homes up on the Hannah and Friends farm, the organization also gives grants to needy families, who have special needs children.
Last year, 85 kids and teens received grant money. “Definitely the most rewarding thing has been the grant program. We get those letters back and they are amazing. You know, lives are transformed by the grants. One mom, her son couldn't sleep through the night because he didn't have a new mattress. She bought a new mattress, she was able to go to work.”
Maura says she also wants to embrace other families who are caring for someone with special needs. “Every child, every parent has a story. Everyone knows the 'Hannah story,' but really there are a lot of stories out there and everyone wants their story to be told," says Maura.
By next fall, Hannah and Friends hopes to have two residential group homes built, allowing space for eight residents to live. Within ten to fifteen years, Hannah and Friends plans on having sixteen homes, where more than sixty residents can live.
The next big fundraiser for Hannah and Friends is in March. It is a St. Patrick's Day party with Coach Weis at the Waterford Estates Lodge in South Bend, Indiana.