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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Program provides fun, friendship for kids in need

MERLE ENGLISH
August 5, 2007

On Monday afternoons when her school day ends, playtime begins for teenager Nicole Yehezkel, but it's playtime with a purpose.Nicole, 15, walks 10 blocks from her home in Floral Park to the home of Betsy and David Mandel. There, looking out the window, Nicole's playmate, Emma Mandel, 11, smiles when she sees Nicole approaching.Emma has Down syndrome. She is excited, because Nicole is coming to play with her for the next hour.Emma has two brothers: Chaim, 14, and Eli, 6, but Betsy Mandel, Emma's mom, said Emma looks forward to seeing Nicole."It's sort of like a big sister," Betsy Mandel said. "They play games, read books, play in the backyard, play with dolls, the sort of things Emma loves to do."Nicole and Emma were brought together through The Friendship Circle, an international program of the Chabad Lubavitch Movement headquartered in Brooklyn, which matches Jewish students with children with autism, multiple sclerosis, vision loss, developmental delays and other conditions. The students volunteer to be friends for the children."It came about because there were many special needs children in the Jewish community and the community at large that were being left out of the loop socially," said Chanie Zalmanov, of Hollis Hills, who founded the Friendship Circle's Queens Chapter."A lot of the children have therapists coming to their home, but they didn't have friendships," Zalmanov said."Some parents are able to get as much help as they need," she continued. "For others, it was the need for respite. But more than that, it was the need for the child to connect emotionally and to have a friend come and play. That is something that was lacking in the life of special needs children."The organization screens the volunteers, who once a week, visit children 4-months-old to 14-years-old. "They need to be emotionally stable and strong and doing basically well in school so that their parents feel they can spare the time," Zalmanov said of the volunteers."For some, it's the first time they're being exposed to someone who's needy," she continued. "A lot can do things [volunteer work] that are not interactive, like painting the park. This is very interpersonal. This gives them the feeling, 'I did a good deed with my time today.'"The organizers visit the children's home to evaluate the family's needs so an appropriate match can be made with the volunteers, who are recruited through junior high and high schools, clubs, and B'nai B'rith youth organizations. To give parents respite, volunteers also accompany their playmates to workshops and Jewish holiday events.Nicole enjoys her role. Emma is her second playmate."I love it. We're having fun," said Nicole. "My parents love it, and my little sister, Emily, 11, wants to do it."Orit Levi, a private school teacher of Kew Gardens Hills, and mother of three, has a daughter, Aviya, almost 6, in the program."She gets two girls who come every Tuesday and play with her," Levi said. "It's a relief for me. I can cook or do work with the other two kids. I think it's a wonderful program."

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