Photos of the Walk

Helping children connect
Play dates for those with special needs

Monday, September 10, 2007
Star-Ledger Staff

The boy with freckles on his nose has severe cerebral palsy and cannot speak. But he understands.

"You say the words 'Friendship Circle' and his whole face lights up," said his mother, Barbara Hollander, 37, of West Orange.

On cue, 7-year old Raffi beamed. Friendship Circle, the name printed on his T-shirt, is the nonprofit organization that sends him teenage volunteers for "play dates" and invites him to group activities.

Like yesterday, when he found himself pushed along in a stroller as his parents meandered through the sunny Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange. The family had joined a fundraiser at the zoo to benefit the local branch of the group, which organizes social outings for children with special needs.

Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, who founded the organization's first New Jersey branch in Livingston seven years ago, estimated about 700 children and family members participated in the 2 p.m. walk.

Friendship Circle, which is nondenominational but offers Jewish instruction, has branches in about 60 cities across the country, he said.

It's a project of the Rabbinical College of America, located in Morristown. The Livingston branch provides services to about 250 children and involves more than 800 teenage volunteers, mostly from Morris, Essex and Union counties.

Five other Friendship Circle chapters have since opened across the state, servicing Bergen, Passaic, Union/Somerset, Monmouth and Atlantic counties, he said.

"It's good because a lot of these kids don't have regular friends," said Livingston resident Hal Sass, 43. Sass' 8-year old daughter Danielle is developmentally delayed and doesn't know many kids in her hometown because she attends special classes in an out-of-district school.

Before yesterday's walk, Danielle informed her father she someday plans to marry her Friendship Circle buddy, Raffi. Another important friend is 17-year-old volunteer Chelsea Blake, a Livingston resident who has visited Danielle once a week for the past three years.

"I've been able to watch her grow up and develop," said Blake, who learned of the nonprofit through another volunteer. Their visits are intended to give parents of children with cognitive and physical handicaps like autism, cerebral palsy or Down syndrome a respite.

While the group so far has fo cused on younger children, Grossbaum said he plans to expand activities this year to teenagers with special needs.

To rally the crowd yesterday, Dmitriy Salita of Brooklyn, a professional boxer in his 20s and an acquaintance of Grossbaum's, was on hand to spar with the kids.

For some, though, the sparring was educational.

Yaakov Meth, 40, of Passaic read zoo signs aloud to his five children. Two-year old Chaya preferred to guess.

"It's not a cow," corrected her 11-year old sister, Elana. "It's a llama."

But for organizers of yesterday's walk, there was little question.

"With the response that we've had," said Grossbaum, "we'll definitely do it again."