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Special-needs Children Have a Friend in Friendship Circle

Micah Abraham is standing on a stool in his parents’ kitchen, stirring a bowl of brownie mix. “Frosting?” the 7-year-old asks Daphna Davidowitz, 16, his Friendship Circle volunteer.

“Not yet,” she cautions.

“When brownies done, we put on frosting?” Micah persists.

Suddenly he turns and runs outside in his bare feet. Daphna chases him down, laughing with him as she coaxes him back to the kitchen.

Back inside, Micah quickly changes focus, lunging at the oven where the brownies are baking.

“I can put them in the oven and make frosting brownies!” he exults.

Micah suffers from autism. At least 300,000 American schoolchildren aged 4 to 17 have the developmental disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And the numbers are increasing every year.

Micah goes to public school, accompanied by a full-time aide. He has trouble focusing, makes inappropriate comments and engages in repetitive behavior, all of which make it hard to interact with him.

Unlike many autistic children, Micah has a few friends who come over to play. But his mother, Bronte, is worried about the future.

“They’re still 7, they just chase each other around,” she says. “When they get older, it’ll be more difficult.”

Loneliness is one of the worst problems facing children with developmental disabilities. Others avoid them, uncomfortable with the outbursts, unsure how to talk to them and unwilling to make the effort.

Often the entire family feels ostracized. Lori Saunders of Livingston, N.J., says she and her husband stopped attending synagogue because of their autistic son, Avi.

“He’d have outbursts and people would make negative comments, very disparaging,” Saunders recalls. “It was so embarrassing. You don’t know what to say; you’re angry and you’re hurt.”

Friendship Circle is trying to break through that isolation by reaching out to children with developmental problems, as well as their families, and offering them a welcoming hand into the community.

Through its Friends At Home program, the national nonprofit sends teen volunteers into families’ homes for weekly visits. The volunteers play games, sing songs and engage the child for a few hours, providing the parents a respite while bringing a smile to the child.

The first Friendship Circle was created in 1994 in West Bloomfield, Mich., by Chabad emissaries Rabbi Levi and Bassie Shemtov. They came up with the idea soon after they arrived, Levi says, by asking other rabbis and Jewish leaders what was the greatest community need.

“They told us, special-needs kids,” he recalls.

Six years later, a second Friendship Circle was established in Livingston on the Michigan model. Today there are 59, each run by a Chabad emissary couple.

Thirty-four circles were set up this past year, the newest in San Francisco in November. The goal is 100 by the year 2010.

Nationwide, more than 10,000 volunteers and special-needs families are involved.

From the original Friends at Home program, Friendship Circles have branched out to offer Sunday morning “Children’s Circles,” holiday parties, winter and summer camps, support programs for parents and siblings, clubs for teen volunteers, and other activities designed to bring special-needs children into the larger community.

Nothing else quite like it exists, experts say.

“It’s an absolutely fascinating program,” says Bert Goldberg, president and CEO of the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies.

Many of the 145 local agencies Goldberg represents have programs for special-needs children, he says, but none is on the scope of Friendship Circle.

Peter Bell, president and CEO of the national advocacy group Cure Autism Now, has been sending his 13-year-old autistic son to the Friendship Circle in Los Angeles for two years.

“It’s a wonderful experience,” Bell says. “It’s critical for these kids to feel they have a home and a place to develop friendships.”

Michelle Chekan of West Bloomfield, Mich., sends her 6-year-old son, Ari, to several Friendship Circle programs, including Friends at Home and tae kwon do classes.

“We are very Reform, but they are so nonjudgmental, so open to any branch of Judaism or non-Jewish people,” she says.

Her son spends a great deal of time at LifeTown, a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art building on the Michigan Friendship Circle campus that serves as a therapy and activity center.

The hub of LifeTown is the Weinberg Village, a 5,000-square-foot indoor city where the children practice important life skills, such as waiting in a doctor’s office, shopping in a drug store and crossing the street.

The village serves non-Jewish as well as Jewish children; local public schools regularly send groups of their special needs students.

The first Friendship Circle volunteers 12 years ago were Lubavitch girls, but volunteers now come from all over the Jewish community. Temple Israel, a large Reform congregation in West Bloomfield, sends 70 adult members twice a month to staff the LifeTown Village, acting as the store owners, hairstylists and bank tellers with whom the special-needs children learn to interact.

Palo Alto Chabad emissary Nechama Schusterman, who runs that city’s Friendship Circle with her husband, Ezzy, says she gets many of her 130 teen volunteers from Jewish youth groups.

Many of the teens initially sign on to fulfill community service requirements at their high schools. That’s what Paul Springer, 16, of Stamford, Conn., thought when he began volunteering last year. He is now very attached to Daniel, the 11-year-old autistic boy he visits, and even has persuaded another friend to volunteer with him.

Some volunteers say it helps them express what they think is important about Judaism.

“It was a way for me to relate back to the Jewish community,” says Davidowitz, who signed up when she was 14 specifically because it was a Jewish program.

Friendship Circle directors say the program is based on teachings of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who wrote that special-needs children should not be treated differently from other kids. If they are approached with love and taught carefully, Schneerson taught, they might even overcome their difficulties.

That positive message infuses the Friendship Circle and provides its particular twist — not to “help” special-needs children in isolation, but to embrace them as fellow Jews and human beings.

In cities where Friendship Circles operate, families of the special-needs children, the volunteers and Jewish leaders say it has helped normalize the community’s attitude toward developmental disabilities.

“The biggest impact Friendship Circle has is not in the actual programs we run but in changing people’s mentality,” says Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, executive director of the Friendship Circle in Livingston. “The teen volunteers go back to their shuls and their home communities, and people are starting to see children with disabilities in a different light.”

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