“I love this more than anything in the world,” says Jordan Fishman, 13, of her weekly visits with 11-year-old Stephanie, an autistic girl. Since joining the Friendship Circle of Michigan last year, Jordan has earned two links on her friendship nomination bracelet for 30 hours of volunteer work.
Possibly one of the most highly innovative programs catering to children with special needs, the Friendship Circle, as its name suggests, is really a chain of goodness, one that comes around full-circle, forever transforming the lives of those involved at either end.
For nearly 150 children with special needs—learning, emotional, or social, the Friendship Circle’s various programs effectively involve them in activities that are both enjoyable and educational, as each child receives the undivided attention of a devoted volunteer. Weekly visits from a pair of volunteers—known as the Friends at Home program—offer the parents and siblings of special needs children a much-needed respite from the the struggles that are a constant in negotiating daily routines. Volunteers will often accompany families to holiday programs and services where they can participate, uninterrupted, as the volunteers tend to the children.
Founded some six years ago by Rabbi Levi and Bassie Shemtov and Chabad of the Detroit area, the Friendship Circle began with ten special needs children and twenty volunteers. Since then it has grown into a huge operation, with ten full time staff members, and close to 300 working part-time. Several trailers serve as its temporary center with plans for a building pending approval.
The program’s tremendous success here in Michigan served as model for other Chabad centers who adopted the Friendship Circle, among them, Livingston and Manalapan in New Jersey; Columbus, Ohio; Montreal and Toronto in Canada. Two hundred and fifty teens, ranging in age from 11 and up, volunteer for the Friendship Circle, where they earn points towards their community service requirements—an incentive, at least initially, for teenagers to join.
Forging close friendships with their respective charges, the teens quickly realize their ability to bring joy into people’s lives, building their own self-esteem and motivating them further to fill their time with meaningful activity.
Reflecting on her experience, Jordan, who joined the Friendship Circle expecting to be on the giving end, says that she “gained much more than I could ever give back,” and feels uplifted and inspired.
Twenty-four children and an equal number of volunteers participate at a Sunday Children’s Circle. In the course of the 2Å“ hour program, the children get to join a professional therapy session of their choice: music, art, karate, or sports. A Life Skills program, aimed at helping children communicate and improve social interaction, meets once a week in the form of a music therapy session. Additional programs include the Fun & Physical sports therapy sessions, which meet twice weekly.
Shabbatons, trips, and seminars will follow this year’s kick off party for volunteers, where in addition to an exciting evening out or a weekend away, they will be kept up to date on new developments in working with children with special needs. The program is a source of pride for the mothers of volunteers as well. Two hundred volunteers and their mothers attended a mother and daughter Friendship Circle event last year, and a similar program is planned for fathers and their volunteer sons, in December.
“Our goal is really twofold; on the one hand we are trying to foster feelings of openness and warmth towards these children and their families, and on the other we are providing young adults with the opportunity to be productive in a way that will have a lasting, positive influence on their lives,” says Bassie Shemtov.