by Sydney Rae Appelbaum
“Teach a child according to his needs and even when he is old, he will not depart from
How is one to define the word special? Is it merely a term that helps to segregate one entity from another? Does the word illustrate a preference or an entitlement? If this is how the word special is commonly understood, what does it mean to have special needs? As Gov. Sarah Palin stated at the Republican National Convention, “Children with special needs inspire a special love.”
A child with special needs refers to someone that requires routine, adjustment of
expectations, special accommodations and around-the-clock care. However, my
heartwarming experience working with the Friendship Circle has taught me otherwise.
The Friendship Circle is an international nonprofit organization started in 1994 under the auspices of the Chabad in West Bloomfield Hills, Mich. At that time there were only eight volunteers. Today over 100 circles are providing love, care and inspiration to thousands. Like a stone cast into a pond, the ripple effect continues.
The circle is based on the biblical commandment, “To love your fellow as yourself.” This organization is like no other. While other groups offer therapy and counseling or raise funds to help find cures, the circle is simply about the fun and love that friendship fosters. God could have created a perfect world, a world free of suffering, poverty, illness and injustice. But He created the world imperfectly and us flawed so that we could improve it ourselves and grow spiritually. Devora Wilhelm, director of the Upper East Side Chabad, explained to the volunteers that these special souls are sent to this world for a very specific mission and they have positive effects on the people around them.
Friendship Circle pairs special needs children with a teen volunteer. Some volunteers experience trepidation at first but everyone participates at the level that is comfortable for them. There is no pressure. I participate in the Friends At Home program at the Chabad of the Upper East Side and have worked with the same friend for the past four years. Brocha, my adorable
5-year-old friend who has Down syndrome, jumps on me excitedly every time we see each other.
As much as I give of myself, it doesn’t measure up to what special needs children feel they are receiving. Brocha has a very busy calendar fraught with many therapy dates but few play dates. However, during our outings to Carl Schurz Park I am inundated by parents often wanting to introduce their children to Brocha, to teach tolerance at a young age. People fear what they do not understand.
It had been years since I rode a tricycle, stuck my hand in a fish tank, played with glitter glue and said prayers over grape juice and a plastic challah. Brocha and I focus on what we share rather than on our differences that divide us. Our friendship fosters equality. There is something very tranquil about working with Brocha. There are no judgments; my young friend does not care what I look like. She doesn’t look at my shoes and notice that they aren’t the newest Tory Burch quilted flats that everyone has at school.
Some families gain more than friends for their children. “The Friendship Circle has brought Judaism into our home,” explains Rhonda Miller, a Maryland Friendship Circle parent of 15-year-old Jamie. “After my daughter Jamie and her friend made decorations for the Chabad sukkah, she insisted that we build our own sukkah.”
My work with the Friendship Circle has taught me about facing adversity, overcoming obstacles, personal triumph, love and the true measure of a human being. I am inspired by Brocha and am humbled by her accomplishments. Brocha has taught me the true value of friendship. Volunteering for the Friendship Circle makes a difference but what people do not understand is that it is the children with special needs who make a difference in our lives. I have learned that one hour a week is enough to change a lifetime forever.
Working with children with special needs teaches you to live; every moment is special to them. The Friendship Circle has taught me how important it is to spend time with people who truly care about you. Through Friendship Circle, unconditional love blossoms.
For more information on the Friendship Circle and upcoming events
Sydney Rae Appelbaum is a senior at Abraham Joshua Heschel High School in Manhattan.