Friendship Circle brings joy to special kids

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ - A crowd of hundreds congregated at the Essex County Turtle Back Zoo on Sunday to participate in a fund-raising walk to raise money for The Friendship Circle, a non-profit organization dedicated to filling the social and recreational void that tends to plague the lives of children with special needs.

Local families, volunteers and children with special needs who came out to participate in The Friendship Circle’s first walk did so to raise money for the organization, and to promote volunteerism throughout the community.

The walk was part of the non-profits overarching goal, which is to call attention to the importance of inclusivity of children who may be isolated from the social mainstream by both physical and mental handicaps.

“We are trying to bring awareness to helping children with special needs and to what’s going on in the friendship circle with the volunteers who are making a huge difference in our community,” said Rabbi Zalman Grossman, director of The Friendship Circle. “We help children across the board with autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. Any child who needs a friend, that’s the qualification for Friendship Circle.”

The Friendship Circle, run by the Chabad House as part of the Livingston Rabbinical College of America, currently includes more than 800 teenage volunteers, and serves almost 300 special-needs children throughout the local community. Collectively, teenage volunteers for The Friendship Circle provide more than 30,000 friendship hours annually.

“This is a great program,” said Rachel Sanders, mother of 9-year-old Madeline, one of The Friendship Circle’s most beloved special needs children. “It’s been so wonderful for Madeline. She can be with other children who are also handicapped but in a really safe environment where other children are there to take care of her.”

Before the one-mile walk commenced on the path that runs through the Turtle Back Zoo, the crowd enjoyed a boxing demonstration by the famous Jewish boxing champion, Demitri Salita, known as “The Hebrew Hammer,” who inspired the crowd with his story of dedication to God and how a religious awakening helped him achieve fame as a boxer.

“All of us have a certain place in the world,” said Salita, whose faith runs so deep that he will not fight in matches held on Shabbat. “And with our random deeds of kindness we can make this world a better place,” he said.

In the crowd, special-needs children played together and interacted with teenage volunteers, who they’ve come to know and love during the years.

“I’m here today to have fun,” said Matthew Cohen, an 11-year-old boy with special needs. “The volunteers are awesome!”


Funds raised by the walk will go toward a variety of Friendship Circle programs, which include Friends at Home, Children’s Circle, Holiday Programs, Friendship Fair and Soccer Circle.

“Our goal is just to provide friendship for these kids, and really to show them a good time,” said Chavi Greenberg, who runs programs for teens with special needs with The Friendship Circle. “If they are coming to a sports program, the kids will just run around the field together and play. If they are doing a home visit, they’ll play with their toys and just enjoy.”

The Friendship Circle was launched in October 2000 in response to the demands of parents throughout the community who have children with special needs.

Now in its seventh year of providing friendship for children with special needs, volunteers and employees of the Friendship Circle are now raising funds to expand the range of their service even further to provide companionship for even more children, and to give more young adults a chance to benefit from the relationships they build with special needs children.

“It’s been wonderful and challenging, and I love it and keep coming back,” said Jen Zelnick, a senior at Newark Academy who has been volunteering with the Friendship Circle for four years in various programs. “These kids have taught me a lot about myself and what I want to do in life, which is to study social anthropology.”

The Friendship Circle aims to create an environment for teens that will nurture and inspire them with meaning, purpose, and self-value; a sense of connection to the community through innovative and stimulating programs.

For more information on volunteer and donation opportunities with The Friendship Circle, go to, or call 973-597-0618.