The Friendship Circle of Miami Beach and North-Dade has been working to integrate special-needs youngsters into the local Jewish community. The organization, launched in 2009, now serves approximately 75 children and 130 teenagers. The organization pairs teenage volunteers with children and young adults with autism and other developmental disabilities. The arrangement is mutually beneficial. The volunteers gain an experience that expands their horizons. The special-needs children have an opportunity to integrate into the mainstream community in a positive atmosphere of acceptance and understanding.
Children with special needs often lack the gift of friendship. By pairing them with typical teens, the youngsters have access to friends, a place in the community, and a chance to simply hang out. The organization can provide a powerful positive impact in a way that therapists, parents and schools may be unable to deliver.
Zack, who has Asperger Syndrome, recently celebrated his bar mitzvah with a small party for family and friends. Rabbi Mendy taught him to read from the Torah. At the event, his mother noted that almost all attendees were family friends, community members, and Zack’s buddies from Friendship Circle. Noticeably absent were other children his age. She said, “Zack’s only friends here today are his teenage buddies from Friendship Circle. If it weren’t for them, he wouldn’t have any friends his own age.”
David, an 8-year-old boy on the autism spectrum, recently attended a Friendship Circle event. As he entered he told his Dad, “I love coming to the FC programs ‘cause everyone loves each other.”
“As several special-needs mothers and fathers have told us, once your child gets the diagnosis of developmental disability, first you’re overwhelmed and then you don’t know where to turn,” said Friendship Circles director Rabbi Mendy Dechter.
“Moms, dads, siblings, and grandparents may all be affected. Friendship Circle programs allow us to ease some of their burden with meaningful programs, time out for parents, siblings and others. Getting to know other special-needs families, as well as the families of our teen volunteers, provides support these families may not be able to find elsewhere.”
For more information and to volunteer or contribute, contact Rabbi Mendy at 305-330-5653 or 305-735-9686.
About the Author: Shelley Benveniste is South Florida editor of The Jewish Press.
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