Associated Press Writer


(AP) _ Max and Melissa Goldberg are 7-year-old twins, but not identical.

As a child with Down's Syndrome, Max has special needs that require his parents to spend more time with him than with his sister, who was not born with the condition.

So to their mother, the hour that a pair of teenage volunteers spend with Max under the Rabbinical College of America's Friendship Circle program is a godsend.

"We always had to give him a little bit more attention," Miriam Goldberg said. "I can spend more quality time with my other child."

That is just one of the benefits of the Friendship Circle program, say its sponsors, volunteers, participants and their parents. The program brings together young people, mostly teenage girls, with children of various special needs. They spend time — talking, hugging, laughing, learning — in large supervised groups during winter and summer day camps, and in small groups when pairs of volunteers visit the same children at home weekly during the school year.

Chaya Kessler, 14, visits a developmentally disabled 6-year-old neighbor in Morristown.

"I know that I'm making him happy, and he looks forward to it," Chaya said. "We jump on the trampoline, and we listen to music. We play different videos, we play baseball — if it's nice we play in his back yard. And we have a snack together."

Chaya and two dozen other young women and teens were volunteering at a weeklong winter camp at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Morris, in Whippany, sponsored by one of four Friendship Circle programs in the state. Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum and his wife, Toba Grossbaum, founded the first program, based in Livingston, in 2000, modeled after a similar program in Detroit.

"If anybody tells you that the future's not bright, let them look at the Friendship Circle," Grossbaum said.

There are other programs around the state involving volunteers, including teenagers, that serve special needs children, said Celine Fortin, assistant executive director of the ARC of New Jersey, formerly the Association for Retarded Citizens.

But, Fortin said, they are not individual, companion programs like the Friendship Circle.

The Livingston-based Friendship program alone serves 180 families in central New Jersey, using 400 volunteers, Grossbaum said.

There are now programs in Teaneck, Manalapan and Passaic in New Jersey, and in 17 other cities in New York, California, Florida, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. Australia, Turkey and Canada also have programs, and one is starting in Brazil.

The interaction between the children and volunteers is purely social, though the professional therapists who are also involved in the program say the benefits are no less real than mental or physical therapy.

Yonna Bliner, a physical therapist who led the winter campers in swimming lessons, said special needs children typically interact mainly with adult professionals. The volunteers, as well as the other campers, let them establish valuable relationships with people closer to their own age.

"They start to feel isolated," Bliner said.

One winter camper, Matthew Katz, 11, of Livingston, said the camp was "great," and that he had made a new friend, Max Goldberg.

"We do fun stuff together," Matthew said.

Audrey Bernstein, 42, of Livingston, whose daughters, Corrine, 12, and Jessica, 14, are volunteers, said, "I don't know who gets more out of it, the volunteers, the children, or the parents of the special needs children."

Several volunteers at this week's camp had parents who worked professionally with disabled children, and Grossbaum said some volunteers have siblings with special needs. Some said they would like to work in the field professionally.

Others, like Nechama Mann, 20, who was visiting from Toronto to volunteer as a counselor for the Whippany winter camp, said she had no experience with special needs children. She surprised herself with how readily she took to them.

"I never thought I had this in me," she said.