That day turned into two weeks, and those two weeks turned into years. Suddenly, the past five years flew by volunteering at Friendship Circle and I have loved every second of it. Friendship Circle is a worldwide Jewish-run organization that allows children with special needs to hang out with friends, learn life skills, and be involved in their communities. It is “where individuals with unique abilities and their families, teen volunteers, supporters, and staff link together to form a continuous circle of friendship.”
Friendship Circle helps kids grow and develop throughout their lives in an environment similar to the world outside their homes and neighborhoods. The organization is open to all children with various forms of special needs. I have worked with dozens of kids with needs ranging from Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and autism.
One of Friendship Circle’s most important goals is to help both children with special needs and also their families. The organization provides support to help families feel accepted in their communities and allows them to rest for a few hours a week,
which is a big help since many of the children the organization supports are unable to go to school full time or at all.
One of the first girls that I became close to at Friendship Circle is named Taylor. Taylor has a form of autism and a seizure disorder that has never been fully explored by scientists. She was 18 when we first started to hang out. At the time, I was 13, and I was assigned to look out for her once a week. Together we would do some of her favorite activities like painting, basketball, soccer, and most of all, talking to boys.
When I first started volunteering with the program in 2015, Friendship Circle was located in various small buildings, changing location from week to week, there were a minimal number of volunteers and not many activities for them to do. Since then, it has grown exponentially. In fact, the new Friendship Circle building named the Life Town Center had its grand opening a few summers ago.
The Life Town Center is located in Livingston, New Jersey, and it is nothing short of miraculous. There is a soundproof gym so that balls bouncing on the floor will not disturb children who experience hearing sensory overload. There is also a sensory room, where children who experience other forms of sensory overload can be in a quiet, tranquil environment. A zero-entry pool enables campers to learn to swim even if they are in a wheelchair by providing an environment where they can stand with the support of the water. There is also a handicap-accessible bowling alley that enables children who are unable to stand by themselves to be able to bowl, and a sand room that teaches campers about different and possibly soothing textures.
Friendship Circle’s annual “Allie’s Camp” is a week-long program that pairs a child with special needs with one or two volunteers who take campers places in the area. Activities include bowling, gymnastics, and going to the zoo and various museums outside of the facility. These field trips aim to acclimate many of the children to life outside of their “bubble” and introduces them to glimpses of the outside world without their family members.
In more recent years, I have had the privilege of working with Sam, a 14-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. Sam is non-verbal and uses a wheelchair, and we have a great time together. He absolutely loves to go on swings, play with puppies, and look at the bright lights in the sensory room.
Dean Koenig, who lives in Warren, New Jersey, has been volunteering with the program for two years. He says, “Friendship Circle not only made it possible for many people with special needs to have fun, [but] it has also given me the opportunity to make so many friends, who, despite their differences, have the warmest hearts.”
Tara Cohen from Short Hills, New Jersey, has been volunteering for six years. She says, “Each time I go, I meet the brightest kids. Working with these kids and seeing them have those small moments of laughter and smiles melts my heart. When they call you their best friend and how much it means to them to just hang out with someone for a few hours [it] makes you realize how much this helps them and their families. Friendship Circle is not just a place to volunteer, but a place to make best friends every week.”
The difference that Friendship Circle has made to families across the world is extraordinary, and that is the reason I have spent and will continue spending my time volunteering there. It is the difference-maker for many and a true miracle for thousands.