A gift that goes both ways

Friendship Circle teens bond with special needs kids

By Chelsea Blake
Daily Record, Morris County

Friendship Circle brings together teen volunteers and children with special needs in a program that benefits both.

"We envision a world in which people with special needs and their families experience acceptance, inclusion and friendship as contributing members of society," says the group's mission statement. "We foresee a future where they never again have to suffer the social isolation that has often been so prevalent."

This is the altruistic philosophy of the Friendship Circle organization, which consists of thousands of volunteers worldwide who embrace its vision.

The Friendship Circle originated in Detroit a decade ago and has grown to include programs in 50 locations, with offices in Canada, Australia and the newest location in Brussels, servicing the whole European Union.

Six years ago, the Friendship Circle established its second location under the leadership of Rabbi Zalmam Grossbaum in the Metrowest area of New Jersey, including Morris and Essex counties.

The program in this region has been tremendously successful, enjoying the participation of 600 teen volunteers, 220 families with special needs children and the able staff involved in the effort.

The volunteers range from seventh to 12th grade and come from 40 schools throughout the area.

The Friendship Circle's variety of unique and enjoyable programs engage the participants in a range of social, recreational, Judaic and therapeutic experiences. The organization is able to achieve its mission of benefiting both the children with special needs and the teen volunteers.

"The experience we've had with the teens involved in the Friendship Circle has been inspiring," Grossbaum said. "The children with special needs have benefited from their love and attention, and the teens have benefited equally from the impact these children have had on them."

Two primary programs offered by the Friendship Circle are "Friends at Home" and "Children's Circle."

"Friends at Home" involves teen volunteers visiting special needs children in their environment at home. Volunteers lead their friend in playing all sorts of fun games and activities, also providing a much needed respite for their parents.

Because the teen acts as a friend rather than an authority figure, a close bond is established. While the teen volunteer learns the value of giving, the child with special needs learns from the older friend, resulting in a reciprocal gift to both teen and child.

In addition, for the teen, the interaction with their special needs friend promotes empathy and respect for those facing difficult challenges on a daily basis.

Sally Elbaum, now a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, still talks about the impact that this program had on her.

"It made me a more compassionate person, and I will remember this experience and my special friend for the rest of my life," Elbaum said.

The other main program, "Children's Circle," is held on Sunday mornings throughout the school year. For 21/2 hours, the parents leave their children in the hands of qualified professionals and volunteers, who engage them in activities such as music, art, baking, story-time, and sports.

In addition to these programs, there are numerous others in which volunteers and special needs children can partake. These include Jewish holiday programs, Friendship Circle camps, sports nights, soccer circles, volunteer seminars, etc.

The Friendship Circle organization is a rewarding and beneficial experience for all. It is providing a much needed and invaluable service to the special needs community.

To volunteer or become involved with the Friendship Circle, visit www.fcnj.com or www.njjewish.com for more information.