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Duluth woman's quest to find friends inspires new social group

A group for young adults with autism or learning disabilities has its first meeting Saturday.

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Mariah Johnson holds her puppy Luna on Wednesday, Aug. 26, in her family's backyard. Luna has kept Johnson company during the pandemic but she's still looking forward to meeting new friends Saturday, Aug. 29, at Bridging Heart's first meeting at Enger Park. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Even through a computer screen, you can tell Mariah Johnson is bubbly and incredibly kind.

She finds it easy to make friends, with her outgoing nature and boundless energy, but seeks a larger circle of friends who share her life experiences — and deep passion for creativity, she said during a recent Zoom interview.

Mariah is on the autism spectrum. Since graduating from Lakeview Christian Academy in Duluth a few years ago, the 22-year-old has been searching for a group of friends who understand and accept her different abilities.

Her push to find a group of friends with abilities similar to hers caught the attention of the News Tribune last year .

The resulting article, detailing her and her mother Teresa Johnson's push to find a social group in Duluth, caught the attention of a person with connections to a Twin Cities nonprofit — a group that might be the solution for Mariah's quest.

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Bridging Hearts is a nonprofit that connects independent young adults with learning or social disabilities, autism and other related disabilities to social events and a private social media platform.

Members of Bridging Hearts can function independently, without personal care assistants. There are two groups: one for people ages 19-30 and another for those over age 30. Since its start in 2016, the Twin Cities chapter has grown to over 170 members, Teresa said.

The director of Bridging Hearts, Denise Martin, reached out to Teresa after reading the article.

"I want to let you know I was you 15 years ago," she said.

Like Teresa, Martin also had a daughter who was seeking a friend group, influencing her to launch Bridging Hearts.

The two women met, and quickly began working to open a Duluth branch of Bridging Hearts, which Teresa would oversee. But the coronavirus pandemic hindered their work, Teresa said.

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Mariah Johnson's mom Teresa (right) helps Mariah pose her creation Wire Man in their backyard Wednesday, Aug. 26. Mariah created Wire Man for an art class in school and has since drawn a comic about the character and his adventures. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

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As months of the pandemic wore on, Teresa said she realized this group was needed more than ever, and she forged ahead with starting the group.

"I think the thing that Bridging Hearts really does for its members, is (it combats) isolation (and) boosts their communication. It builds their confidence (and) self-esteem," Teresa said. "And it brings happiness and value to their lives."

Although Mariah hasn't struggled with loneliness during the pandemic, thanks to a new family puppy and her creative mind, she's still excited for the opportunity to make new friends.

Teresa considered starting her own group from scratch last year, but is opting to open Bridging Hearts' Duluth location as she didn't want to manage everything that comes with starting a nonprofit.

To join the group, people must apply and go through an interview process with Teresa, where their living skills are screened to ensure they can participate in the group activities.

"It's for the people ... who maybe lack skills to live independently, who struggle socially (and) maybe fall through the cracks," she said. "But they're very beautiful people and high-functioning adults that really deserve a social circle like anybody else."

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Mariah Johnson shows off her creation, Wire Man, on Wednesday, Aug. 26. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

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Once accepted, it costs around $16 a month to gain access to Bridging Hearts' own social media platform — one similar to Facebook — and monthly events.

Mariah has numerous ideas for events, like outdoor or Zoom movie nights, a harvest festival, a Christmas party and a car maintenance workshop.

"I'm hoping for a bigger ... (circle) of friends," Mariah said.

Bridging Heart's first meeting is Saturday at Enger Park. There are two meeting times, each with a maximum attendance of 25 people: 10:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m. and 12:30-2:15 p.m.

"This is a time where parents step back," Teresa said. "This is a time where there'll be one or two adults hanging out, but really, this is an independent-adult event."

Register by emailing Teresa at teresa.johnson@bridginghearts.org. Participants should bring a boxed lunch, face mask and lawn chair and plan to socially distance.

Related Topics: FAMILYHEALTHDULUTH
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