Two friends find each other, and both of them benefit

Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Star-Ledger Staff

Emily doesn't have a deep answer for why she does what she does, or how it has improved the lives of those around her.

But those who have seen what Emily has done have a clear opinion on the matter.

"She's a treasure, a best friend, a part of the family. What else can you say?" asks Lori Solomon of North Caldwell, gesturing towards the 17-year-old standing only a few feet away. "Now I'm sure she's mad at me for saying all that."

"No, I'm not mad," Emily's quick to reply. "I just don't think it's a big deal."

What Emily has done, though, is a very big deal.

A student at Kushner Hebrew Academy, Emily Freeman, of Livingston, joined a school-sponsored volunteer program called Friendship Circle in 2001. The program matches teens in Essex, Morris and Union counties — as well as teens in 34 other U.S. cities — with local special needs children. Once paired up, volunteers are asked merely to spend time and build friendships with their partners.

In New Jersey, this simple program has delivered profound results. What started with only a handful of volunteers has grown into a friendship empire of some 600 volunteers and 25,000 hours of community service.

On June 21, 75 of the most committed volunteers were honored with a fellowship named in memory of philanthropist Jerry Waldor, who helped nurture Friendship Circle into existence.

And out of those 75 fellows, Emily was honored as "Friend of the Year," singled out as the one volunteer who had gone above and beyond all expectations.

She still shrugs off the award: "It means a lot, but I'm just thrilled to have made such a great friend. I wasn't doing this for awards."

Emily's friend is 12-year-old Hannah Solomon, Lori's daughter, a student at Cedar Knolls' P.G. Chambers School who is developmentally disabled. First meeting in 2001 at a special Passover event, the two became instant friends, and over the months and years since, Emily has made a weekly habit of spending time at the Solomons'.

"She's here every Sunday," Lori Solomon says. "And when Hannah wakes up Sunday morning, that's the first word out of her mouth: 'Emily.'"

On a recent Friday afternoon, as Emily and Hannah played catch in the Solomons' living room and colored pictures out on the deck, Emily was quick to point out Hannah's sharp wit ("She'll mess with you and you won't even realize") and her enthusiastic laughter.

She also pointed to Hannah's recent Bat Mitzvah — where Emily herself gave a speech about her friend — as one of the 12-year-old's greatest achievements. Lori said after months of practicing and rehearsing, Hannah was able to record her own readings of the ceremony's Hebrew prayers, leading her friends and family through the day's traditions.

But the benefits of Friendship Circle go far beyond one-on-one relationships, both according to Lori Solomon, who has been part of the circle now for five years, and Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, who has overseen the program's rapid growth.

Solomon said Emily's visits give her a special time each week to spend with her other children and her husband. "One Saturday afternoon my husband was watching a game on television, and I could actually sit down and watch it with him. It was wonderful."

She also said that, for the 600-some volunteers now serving as part of the New Jersey Friendship Circle, the program builds a bridge between two worlds that can sometimes get lost in misunderstandings.

"The other day in the mall, another girl from Friendship Circle ran up and said, 'Hi, Hannah' and they talked for a while," Solomon said. "You don't always see that — the way it has made Hannah accepted and the friendships it's created."

Grossbaum said everyone involved with the program, from parents to volunteers to the children with special needs, benefits from the experience.

"What's most amazing is watching these teenagers grow," he said. "They do this, and they see they are important and that they can make a difference — that when we talk about making a difference, it's not just something set in the future, but something they can do today to help these kids and families."

So just how much of a difference can a friendship make? Emily finds that a hard answer to put into words. But it's the difference that can be felt in Hannah's house every Sunday afternoon.