Nonprofit connects special needs families

Finding ways for her autistic brother, Rick, to get connected with the community proved difficult for Robin Lally of Belleair Shore. That's why she founded Help Us Gather to make it easier for others to connect to the community, enjoy events and find new friendships by providing a free and easy way to find or share events for people with disabilities.

Three years ago, Robin Lally wanted her 46-year-old autistic brother closer to home, so she helped move him to Clearwater.

But she quickly learned that taking care of Rick’s needs proved difficult.

“We were easily able to get his services for his health care and therapies and things like that, but, unfortunately, where this is a huge deficit was socially,” said Lally of Belleair Shore. “He was really lonely, and it got to be overwhelming because I felt like I had to be with him all day and all weekend and then the minute I left him he would just sit in the dark. He just needed some friends and something to look forward to and something to plan for. So, I got really frustrated looking online and not finding anything.”

After about nine months of searching, she was finally able to find groups and activities to connect him with the community.

“When I did finally find them, it really changed his life,” she said. “All of a sudden he was happy, made some friends, he was excited for weekend plans. So, I just kept thinking, why is there not a website? It would’ve really made it easier for us.”

So, she set out to do it herself, and in November 2017, Hug Us Gather was born. The intent of the website, hugtampabay.org, was to make it easier for others to connect to the community, enjoy events and find new friendships by providing a free and easy way to find or share events for people with disabilities.

It wasn’t long before she started meeting inspiring children, teens and adults, who inspired her to start her own events and gatherings, beginning with an adult friendship group called Friends of HUG.

“We just had so much engagement from the community that we just kind of kept planning more and more things,” she said.

The positive feedback and success of the program led Lally to start an ambassador program, in which volunteers help HUG spread its mission around town.

Currently, HUG has more than 60 ambassadors and two full-time employees, while Lally volunteers full-time. All the hard work led to HUG’s first large community outreach event, “Beyond Beautiful,” on April 14. The fashion event at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Largo served about 80 women with special needs by providing them with a glamorous evening to inspire confidence and friendship.

Lally said her position is a far cry from her previous line of work as a stockbroker managing a trading department for Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan for 15 years.

“It was a really high-pressure job,” she said. “Everyone was really stressed out, so this line of work to me is just a dream come true.”

While her previous jobs in finance and real estate were more lucrative, Lally added that the satisfaction she gets from her new role with HUG is priceless.

“What is important to me is impact,” she said. “It’s not a paycheck. It’s not ego. It’s impact, and what is really awesome about what I’ve been doing with HUG is that I get to see the impact. It happens before your eyes. When you see someone who all of a sudden feels like they are part of something or connected, you see them change right before your eyes. So, I fell in love with the work and can’t get enough of it.”

If you or a loved one knows someone who has special needs and are looking to connect to the community, please contact HUG by visiting hugtampabay.org, emailing events@helpusgather.org or calling 727-489-5885.