Moe Levin of Thornhill, Ontario, doesn’t think it’s right that teenagers are stereotyped as “sitting around playing videogames.” Not that Moe and his friends don’t hang out. And not that Moe never plays a videogame. He’s a regular teenager, and that’s what he and thousands of teenagers like him across bring to their volunteer commitment with the Friendship Circle. Sponsored by Chabad-Lubavitch across the United States, Canada, and around the world, the Friendship Circle matches teens and children with special needs for weekly socializing and special events.
Statistically, teens who volunteer for good causes exhibit tendencies that leave parents beaming. According to studies publicized by Child Trends Data Bank, most teenage volunteers plan on completing four-year colleges, shun drugs, and avoid the pitfalls of unplanned pregnancies. They tend to do better academically, psychologically, and the Bureau of Labor statistics even correlates higher earning power with youthful volunteering. Top Friendship Circle volunteers from across North America, who spoke to Lubavitch.com, fit the positive profile, but they say their success working with children who have special needs has more to do with the qualities that make them average, net surfing, cell chatting teens.
On the cusp of wrapping up eleventh grade at Bellaire High School in Houston, TX, Brandon Thum and Jeffrey Heyman upped their commitment to their brothers they visit with through the Friendship Circle. Instead of visiting once a week as the program requires, they hang out with the brothers on Thursday and Sunday. Thum and Heyman have been friends since first grade, they joined Friendship Circle together, were paired up with two brothers and found “we just enjoy hanging out with them and their company.” One brother is a sports fanatic like Brandon, so the guys shoot the breeze, like any other guys would, except… except Thum and Heyman are pretty much the only friends the brothers have.
Where boys bond over sports, girls have nail polish. When Devorah Brecher, a soon-to-be graduate of Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, AZ, met her Friendship Circle buddy, Selena, it was awkward. The seventh grader was quiet and fiddled on the computer instead of talking. Weeks later, Brecher offered a manicure session, Selena perked up. The two now swim, walk in the park, string beads into jewelry. “We can pretty much do anything,” said Brecher. “Some activities take a little longer to do.”
Sociologists fret over the isolating impact of today’s technology. The solitary shadow dancers locked into their iPod’s rhythms, the cell phones that obviate the need to relate to immediate surrounding, are feared to be to be milk teeth of separation and selfishness. On the flipside, Brecher will email Selena if she can’t meet her for their weekly visit, but she finds talking in person much richer. “Our e-mails are very simple, not a lot of detail goes into it,” said Brecher. “When I am with her, she tells me much more about her, about her day.”
After speaking with Friendship Circle volunteers, chicken-egg conundrum emerges. Does volunteering improve character or is it simply that kids with good character volunteer? Participating in the Friendship Circle has changed Kayla Goldman, of Toronto, for the better. Goldman once asked her Friendship Circle buddy, Rebecca, why she was so “smiley”? Rebecca replied, “You’d be happy too if your doctor told your mother when you were born that you wouldn’t live, but you are.” Along with a more positive attitude, Goldman is mindful that Rebecca views her as a role model. “I am her best friend. Anything I do has an effect on her,” said Goldman.
Goldman’s school requires forty volunteer hours from its students. Goldman has long since exceeded her requirements. So has Lauren Grossman, a tenth grader in Westmount High School in Thornhill, but that does not mean she’s dropping her visits with Noah. She enjoys putting on plays with Noah and feels her time with him has added another dimension to her aspiration for a career in medicine. “I’ve always wanted to be a doctor, and working with Noah has helped me realize that children with challenges are just like us. It’s easier for me to be their friend.”