Teens, Special-Needs Kids Bond in Friendship Circle

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The Friendship Circle group poses for a photo during a recent outing.

Are you the parent of a child with special needs and you need additional respite and support?

Would you like your child with special needs to be involved in a full range of social and recreational experiences?

Do you have teenagers who need to earn community service hours and would you like them to be inspired to do something meaningful?

If you said yes to any of the above questions, The Friendship Circle is for you.

Some buddies from the Fridship Circle have fun during a group outing.

“The Friendship Circle is an organization that pairs children with special needs together with teenage volunteers to be friends with them,” said Chani Mintz. “But it’s really so much more than that. It’s often life-changing for the children with special needs and for their families, but also for the teens who are paired with them. I’ve seen amazing things happen and tremendous friendships built.”

Chani, director of The Friendship Circle and wife of Rabbi Reuven Mintz of Chabad Jewish Center Newport Beach, explained that The Friendship Circle Orange County began in 2006.

“The Friendship Circle is a national and international organization,” Chani said. “There are now 82 Friendship Circles around the world, and they are for anybody, you don’t have to be Jewish.”

Chani said that there are thousands of children with special needs such as autism, ADHD, Down syndrome, and other physical or emotional challenges living in our community. These challenges can prevent those children from comfortably interacting with peers and can contribute to those children and their families feeling a sense of isolation and sometimes desperation.

The innovative approach of the Friendship Circle program promotes greater understanding of the unique gifts of children with special needs and encourages respect and empathy for those facing difficult challenges.

“We work really hard pairing the children with special needs with the teen volunteers, who we call buddies,” Chani said. “We factor in many things, such as where they live, days they’re available, interests, ages and compatibility. Teens sign up to earn community service hours, but continue way beyond that because they grow attached to the children and they realize how rewarding it is to give of themselves. The children love them for being their friends, not because they’re cool, and the teens love them back.”

Friendship Circle buddies have fun at a theme park during a recent outing.

When Adam Wolf, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, was asked by his mother, Ali, if he had a good time at his first Friendship Circle experience, he exclaimed, “Yes, Mommy, I made so many new friends!”

Chani explained that the friendship and shared activities reach the children in ways other therapies don’t. The events are catered to children with special needs and their families, and professional therapists train the teens to become skilled in developing friendships with them. The weekly visits to the children’s homes build special bonds between the children and their buddies.

The Sunday Circle also gives parents time to themselves after dropping their children off at Bonita Creek Park, where the children and buddies enjoy carefully selected indoor and outdoor activities under the guidance of trained adults. There are also summer and winter camps, holiday programs, Parent Webinars, and Mom’s Night Out.

“Adam went to the summer camp this year and the level of comfort knowing he was well taken care of, watched closely, and of course had a good time is overwhelming,” said Elayne Blieden whose son has autism. “This is the only program that ever gives me any level of that comfort, and I have been through many programs.”

Friendship Circle buddies have fun at a theme park during a recent outing.

Chani added that they recently began the Young Adult Circle, designed for ages 15-30 with special needs.

“We started it to meet the needs of the children with special needs when they graduated from the younger program,” she said. “We want to give them life skills so they can become better able to care for themselves. Different professionals come and teach them things like how to cook for themselves, deposit checks and go to the movies.”

“When I first joined the Friendship Circle I expected I would be helping a kid with a physical disability,” said teenage volunteer Ally Kaufman. “I did not expect to go on a fantastic journey with my buddy over the course of the year. I owe so much to the Friendship Circle. They taught me so much and I would not have developed into the person I am today if not for their involvement in my life. They make an immense difference, not only in the lives of the kids, but also in the volunteers’ lives.”

The volunteer kick-off and training is Monday Aug. 29, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. For further information, go to www.FriendshipCircleOc.org or call 949-721-9800.

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