The author and her friend, Deborah, enjoy coloring together.
For years I had heard about the Friendship Circle, an organization affiliated with Chabad Lubavitch that pairs teens with special needs friends. But when it came to volunteering for the group, getting started was actually the hardest part of the process.
Prior to my involvement with the Friendship Circle, I agonized over many stereotypical teenage problems: Will I still have enough time to do my work? Will it be hard? What if I can’t connect with the kids? Apprehensively, I e-mailed someone from the Friendship Circle website and expressed my interest in joining.
The woman e-mailed me back almost immediately and invited me to an introductory meeting when the Friendship Circle staff describe all the events for that year. I chose Teen Scene, a meeting held every two weeks for volunteers and special needs teens. Luckily, I didn’t have much time to stress out as the first Teen Scene was the next day.
I was really worried when I arrived at the Friendship Circle site in an office building in Livingston, N.J. I didn’t know anyone at the event and I had no idea what to expect, as I’d never volunteered with special needs kids before. Mostly, I was worried about interacting with a different kind of teen. I worried that the program would be chaotic, especially if I couldn’t communicate with the kids. My biggest fear was that we wouldn’t have anything in common.
As soon as I walked in the door one of the staff members introduced herself, gave me a nametag and assigned me a girl named Deborah. Another volunteer could tell I was a nervous and ill at ease and made an effort to come over and talk to me. He introduced himself and explained how Friendship Circle can be overwhelming the first time, but he loves the organization.
With much prompting, the boy he was paired with introduced himself to me and looked directly at me, something I didn’t see him do again all night. He smiled at me and told me I had pretty eyes, which was completely unexpected from someone who seconds ago avoided talking to or even looking at me. It was such a small gesture, seemingly unimportant, but it completely made my night. I smiled the entire event and went home beaming.
This interaction is a great example of the effects of Friendship Circle. Everyone feels included. From the staff to the volunteers to the participants who will go over to new volunteers and ask their names, I am constantly amazed by the Friendship Circle’s ability to put people at ease. The connections between people are tangible. The kids form relationships with the volunteers and each other. Even the teens who are non-communicative are able to form unspoken bonds.
During my first event, Deborah was hesitant to look at me and did not want to participate in any of the activities. She sat hunched over at a table while I desperately tried to engage her in the scheduled gym and art activities. Her long, dark hair obscured her face and she bounced her leg in a nervous way. I felt hopeless after several desperate attempts at engagement. Not only was I worried that I had done something wrong, I felt guilty as if I wasted her time and she could’ve had fun with another volunteer.
In a final, desperate attempt to do something with her, I invited her to color. Without looking at me she echoed “color” and nodded her head in agreement. Grinning, I rushed to get her coloring supplies and she drew in complete silence. After a couple of pages she took my hand and placed a crayon in it. We colored together for the entire event and I was ecstatic. We were doing something together and she enjoyed it.
By the third event, she warmed up to me within the first five minutes and a couple of events later, she was beating me at balloon volleyball. I’ve now been working with her for more than a year. Even though she doesn’t talk, I can tell that we’ve formed a friendship. She loves to play with scooters and work on art projects together, but her favorite thing to do is play sports.
Friendship Circle is such an amazing organization and I find myself looking forward to the events. Even though it may seem difficult to get involved in volunteering, Friendship Circle is an excellent opportunity to help your community.
Through my volunteering I have learned that friendship goes beyond any differences and even disabilities. I enjoy the time I spend at Friendship Circle, and it is amazing to think that just a couple of hours every month can make the difference it does. Friendship Circle creates the unique opportunity to volunteer with special needs kids in a Jewish environment and really shows the values and importance of friendship.