Special needs and the Jewish community
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Special needs and the Jewish community

Friendship Circle: Filling 'social need' with teens' hel

Zeesy Grossbaum, director of the Friendship Circle of Bergen County, estimates that the Chabad-sponsored group has some 600 volunteers helping to fulfill its mission. “We’re a social organization for kids with special needs,” she said. “We don’t offer professional therapy or schooling, but try to fill a social need.”

Volunteers – from seventh grade and up – visit children at home and participate in specially designed Sunday programs, whether sports, music, arts, or cooking. They might also help out with the at-home birthday parties the club arranges for its young members.

Working as part of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County, the club no longer has to recruit helpers.

“Thank God, we’ve got a lot,” said Grossbaum. While some teens learn of the program through events hosted by their local yeshivah, “We’ve got volunteers from all walks of Bergen County Jewish life,” she said.

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A Friendship Circle volunteer and his very happy friend at a Teen Scene program hosted at the Frisch School. courtesy FC

Some, said the director, are looking for mitzvah projects for upcoming b’nai mitzvah, some are referred by the local federation, and some come through word of mouth. The helpers are evenly divided between boys and girls, although girls are more likely to commit to once-a-week home visits.

Many volunteers, who begin in seventh grade, continue their service through high school, with some coming back to help even when they are in college. Adults can help as well, she said, assisting with program registration or jobs of that nature.

All volunteers are required to attend an orientation.

“We speak with them about the need for sensitivity in working with the children,” said Grossbaum. She tells them, for example, that before considering posting something about their charges on Facebook, they should look at the action from the family’s perspective. “We stress that we’re all created in God’s image, regardless of [one’s] ability.”

Friendship Circle also offers educational seminars twice a year, urging volunteers to attend. In addition, Grossbaum attends the first meeting between volunteers and those they will visit at home.

“We make an introduction and give them an idea of what to do. We also speak with them every other week,” she said.

Grossbaum tells volunteers only to sign up for “what will work” in their lives. For example, if they are involved in Sunday sports teams, they should not sign up for Sunday events. If volunteers know they will be invited to a large number of b’nai mitzvah celebrations during a particular year, they may want to plan their volunteer activities around that.

Volunteers do not need formal training, she said. “Much of it is hands-on,” she said, adding that teachers are on-site at all programs and can work with volunteers when necessary, telling them what they need to know for a specific child.

“We’re looking for teens who are kind, energetic, and responsible,” said Grossbaum. “If they say they’ll show up, they must show up and be counted on. A big part of this is just being there.”

Those interested in volunteering with Friendship Circle should visit bcfriendship.com, which has a list of future orientation dates. Sessions are held once a month in Paramus, and interested teens must attend with a parent.

“It’s for teenagers who want to make a difference,” said Grossbaum. “They’ll feel so rewarded. We have some volunteers who still call from Israel because they really miss their kid.”

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