Once a week, 6-year-old Harrison wakes up feeling excited. "They’re coming today!" he announces with a smile. He’s looking forward to seeing two of his favorite people, Meryl and Tara, two teenage volunteers from The Friendship Circle of Passaic County. The girls arrive with all kinds of activities, everything from arts and crafts to games and music. "These girls really come prepared," says Harrison’s mom, Judy Kessler of Hawthorne. "They come with a plan, and my son looks forward to it tremendously."
Harrison is autistic. His mother is proud of how far he’s come, and notes that the activities the Friendship Circle offers have given him some wonderful opportunities.
The Friendship Circle is a program that started in 1994 in Detroit when a small group of eight volunteers began visiting three special needs children each week. As word spread, other teens asked to volunteer, and families of special needs children learned about the program and asked to be involved. By 2003, the Detroit Friendship Circle counted 350 volunteers and 150 children with special needs. That success inspired a worldwide phenomenon. Today, the Friendship Circle is the fastest growing Jewish organization for children with special needs in the world. There are more than 75 branches globally, and friendships have blossomed for over 11,000 teens and 5,000 children with disabilities.
The Friendship Circle’s mission is a simple one, straight from the Bible, "to love your fellow as yourself." The organization aspires to connect teen volunteers with special needs youths through a variety of programs and experiences. They also offer support and respite to families.
Each Circle is operated by the local Chabad Lubavitch Center, and supported locally. There are local circles throughout the area, including The Friendship Circle of Bergen County, which began in 2003 with fewer than a dozen volunteers helping a small handful of families.
Initially, says Zeesy Grossbaum, director of Bergen County’s Friendship Circle, they started out with just one program, offering play dates for children with special needs. "We now have over 20 programs that run on a regular basis," she says. "The program has grown by leaps and bounds, from four families to 160, and from less than a dozen volunteers to over 650."
In Passaic County, the Friendship Circle started in 2006. Since joining as coordinator in 2009, and director a year later, Sariba Feinstein has seen tremendous growth. "We now have 45 children participating in our programs, up by 30 percent from 2008, and we've doubled our volunteer base to nearly 80 volunteers."
While press releases and publicity for specific events has helped, the growth of the Friendship Circle program is largely due to the commitment of its volunteers. "Getting the word out is a combined effort from our part and the volunteers," explains Feinstein. "At the start of each year, presentations are given at various schools and youth clubs encouraging teens to get involved. We see the majority of our volunteers joining as a result of those presentations. Word of mouth is a strong factor too, as friends see friends volunteering and want to get involved."
Referrals can come from friends or teachers. Feinstein says family services will also call to refer a family in the area. "Finding those families that can benefit from our programs is now a big priority at the Friendship Circle," she notes.
As awareness of the program spreads, more teens are asking to volunteer. "For the first time since the Friendship Circle of Passaic County began, we have a waiting list of volunteers who want to begin Friends at Home."
The Friends at Home program, where teen volunteers make weekly visits, is Passaic County’s main program. "It is the primary and most important program, as it's where the most interaction takes place and where the relationship grows between the child and volunteer," explains Feinstein. Some of the other programs include holiday events, two winter camps, a bowling league, a cooking club and Nights Out for Moms. Next year, they plan to expand their programming to include a Sunday Torah Circle and a birthday club.
At each location, programs vary. In Passaic County, Kessler says her son has had some wonderful opportunities to try new things. "It’s very well-structured," she says. In addition to a family circle Shabbot, which Kessler says her son really enjoys, they also participate in the Friends at Home program. "We also do the art circle and cooking circle," she says. "We also did sports league. It’s a variety of athletic activities that are tailored to the children’s abilities. We did the bowling. Harrison had never bowled before. It was a sense of accomplishment."
Bergen County’s Friends at Home program, children/teen circle Sunday programs, and camps are also very popular, notes Grossbaum. "The response to the Friends at Home program has been huge. We have over 150 teens who visit children weekly. The programs we hold at schools include camps, Sunday programs, holiday events, and cooking club."
For the special needs children who participate in the Friendship Circle, the relationship that develops between them and their new volunteer friend is about more than fun and friendship. It’s about acceptance, inclusion and understanding. "I had to call a mom once to let her know that the volunteers wouldn't be able to make it for their Friends at Home visit that evening," recalls Feinstein. "You could hear the child crying over the phone line and he only calmed down when I promised they would call him to say hello. The children look forward to and cherish the weekly visits."
At group events, children are in an environment which, Feinstein notes, is designed for their involvement only. "Whether it's the Bowling League, Winter Camp or the Cooking Club, they bask in the love and undivided attention of their volunteers. They have a chance to be who they are as any other child and experience the social life any child would wish for."
When teens sign up to be volunteers, they don’t initially realize how much they will be getting out of the program too. "For many of our volunteers, working one-on-one with children who have special needs means leaving their area of familiarity and reaching into a whole other world. It puts them into a position of leadership and responsibility and encourages them to tap in sensitivity previously unknown," she says. "For some it comes harder, others step into their role as mentor, best friend or big brother/sister quite easily. But for all of our volunteers, it gives them a chance to get involved in something bigger than themselves and make a real difference in our community. They know this and they are proud of it."
The bonds that are forged through the Friendship Circle are significant. Feinstein says, "The relationship often goes beyond the weekly home visits and group events, and the volunteers will join for birthday parties, holiday celebrations and more. After graduating, many will return during school breaks to visit and see their special friend."
"One of the Friendship Circle's primary goals," says Feinstein, "is to bring Jewish families with special needs together. Additionally, most of our children are unable to attend Hebrew School. It is for this reason we offer Jewish Holiday Events throughout the year. Our other programs such as the Cooking Circle, Winter Camp etc. each have a thread of Judaism running through them as well. However, there are many that can benefit from the program and we would be happy to assist and include them as well."
"The Friendship Circle is primarily focused on helping Jewish families," agrees Grossbaum, "but no one is turned away." Volunteers come from schools throughout the area.
Organizations like the Friendship Circle depend upon community support. On Sunday, Sept. 11, the Bergen County Friendship Circle will host their 5th annual NJ Friendship Walk in Votee Park in Teaneck. "Sign up to recruit friends and family to support you and show support by walking with you," Grossbaum suggests. "Go the extra mile for a special child."
Passaic County’s Circle will also be holding its Unity Walk for Friends on Sept.18 at Wayne Valley High School.
Judy KessIer understands how extraordinary the Friendship Circle is. "I think it’s fantastic. There are so many teenagers, so many who love to do this. I would absolutely recommend it!" On Harrison’s first visit from his teen volunteers, they made a drawing on construction paper of three figures holding hands with their names written underneath. His mother says it is still proudly displayed on his bedroom door. "All children, regardless of how severe their disabilities are, will get something out of this," she says. "They’re going to feel loved. It’s going to help their self esteem, and enhance their lives. Even if it’s only one hour a week, there’s an afterglow that lasts for a long time."
Kathryn Davis is a New Jersey special education teacher and mother of three.
For more information or to find a local Friendship Circle program, visit www.friendshipcircle.com.
For more information on Passaic County Friendship Circle’s Unity Walk for Friends, visit www.unitywalkforfriends.com.
For more information on Bergen County Friendship Circle’s Friendship Walk, visit www.bcfriendship.com.
To learn about the Essex County Friendship Circle, visit www.fcnj.com.
To learn about the Suffern Friendship Circle in Rockland County, visit www.jewishsuffern.com.