The Chabad-created Friendship Circle has expanded locally to bring more programs to children with special needs and their families.
For Rebecca Federman, one sweep of the minute hand contains much more than 60 minutes. For an hour each month for the past three years, her 11-year-old son, Jacob, spends time with other kids his age and his “buddies” at The Friendship Circle North in Newtown, the Bucks County outpost of the national nonprofit organization that matches special needs children and their families with teenage “buddies.” For that time, Rebecca Federman can relax, secure in the knowledge that Jacob, who is autistic, is socializing with peers and people who understand and accept him for who he is. And is getting a Jewish education as well.
“One of the things that made me comfortable with going there was that we would be connected to the Jewish community,” the Levittown resident said. “There are so many activities, and when a holiday comes up, they make different things, they bake together, and the kids learn all kinds of prayers in a way that is integrated into what they do.”
Finding a place that welcomes her family both socially and spiritually is something Federman said eluded her for years. “We don’t belong to a synagogue at this point,” she explained. “When you have a child with disabilities, it’s very isolating in a lot of respects. I struggled for many years with the school district to find after-school activities for my son. They really aren’t there. This was the only place I could find where he could be included. Here, he has made friends, made connections and learned all kinds of things in the setting of Judaism.”
Federman’s experience sums up what The Friendship Circle aspires to do. The Chabad-created organization was founded in 1994 in Detroit to offer programs to benefit special needs children by pairing them with teenage volunteers. Chabad of Bucks County brought the program to the Philadelphia area in 2000. The program proved to be so popular that in 2004, it was divided into Friendship Circle North to handle the Bucks area and Friendship Circle South for the Philadelphia area. Services and activities provided by The Friendship Circle include weekly in-home visits, events at the organization’s Newtown facility, family Shabbat services, Bar/Bat Mitzvah training and day trips.
The Friendship Circle North will be the beneficiary of funds raised Feb. 26 at the group’s second annual Bubby’s Cook-Off, a chef-driven competition.
For Miriam Shemtov, the rebbetzin at Lubavitch Bucks County and the head of Friendship Circle North, the event is a good way to call attention to the program’s impact on the teenage volunteers who make the lives of special needs families better. “We felt that the teens needed meaning in their lives, to think about more than just themselves,” she explained. In the decade that she has been running the program, she added, she has seen repeatedly how interacting with their special needs friends “touches them in a place where no other spirit or lesson — or any other weekly thing they may do — can. It is a real commitment that builds strength of character.”
Indeed, any teenager interested in participating, from those volunteering at the Newtown facility’s Sunday programs for their mitzvah projects to the high schoolers who make home visits, must agree to stay involved from September to June. Miriam Shemtov said the commitment not only doesn’t deter students, but a significant number of them continue on with the program for multiple years.
Gabby Lysko is one of those who signed on for more than one round. The 18-year-old senior at Lower Moreland High School said that what was initially supposed to be just a way to satisfy the freshman-year service requirement for the National Honor Society has morphed into a four-year commitment. After a few times getting to know the “buddy” that Friendship Circle matched her and her partner with — home visits are done in pairs — she said she “really started to like it, and I realized I was good at it. It was for my own personal benefit to stick with it. I even applied for community service programs and scholarships everywhere I applied to school because I want to continue doing this work.”
Lysko, along with fellow teens Lindsay Godshalk and Allison Levine, will be honored at Bubby’s Cook-Off. She said it feels “a little weird” to receive an honor for something that she does of her own volition. “At this point, it doesn’t feel like I’m doing any kind of service; it’s just fun.”
She added that she fully expects to continue her friendship with her buddy, who has Asperger’s syndrome, even after she goes off to college.
For the parents of special needs children, the kind of dedication displayed by Lysko is a welcome and appreciated form of continuity and commitment. Kim Rubak said her daughter, 14-year-old Harley, has been in the program since she was 6 years old, and she is contacted on a regular basis by most of the girls who have visited her Richboro home over the years, even those who have since gone off to college.
For Harley, a triplet who has cerebral palsy and global development delays, Friendship Circle visits are “the highlight of the week,” her mother said. “She stands waiting by the door for her special buddies to come.”
Those visits, which incude playing board games, doing crafts and relating to other adolescents, changed her daughter’s life “at a time when she really needed it,” Rubak said. “Now that she is bigger, she has girlfriend relationships that she otherwise wouldn’t have.”