Beginning in 2004, The Friendship Circle Program has been part of the menu of services offered by the Chabad of Westchester. This program extends a helping hand to families who have children with special needs in ways that are unmet by other organizations. The idea for such programming originated in Michigan when followers of the Lubavitcher Rebbe organized local teens. The program has grown to 80 chapters worldwide since 1994.
In the local chapter’s early years, Rochel Butman, director of Chabad of Westchester, headed this program. As it expanded, designated coordinators were brought in. For the past five years, Rabbi Mendel and Esti Mochkin have served in this capacity.
“The Friendship Circle’s core mission is to bring joy, friendship and a sense of community belonging to children with special needs and their families,” explained Butman, “In addition, the program’s mission is to empower teens in our community and to give them a sense of purpose and meaning by experiencing firsthand the difference they can make in someone else’s life.”
Friends at Home is a weekly home visiting program where pairs of teen volunteers visit children in their own homes for an hour and a half. Their role is to play and interact with the child, thus giving the parents needed respite and giving the child a bond of everlasting friendship.
Butman discussed how The Friendship Circle’s programming also includes a wide variety of activities. Sunday Circle is a monthly program where children and their volunteers meet on Sunday afternoons for special performances, activities, snacks and crafts for the children. Family members are given the option to stay and participate. Other families leave and enjoy some free time. The Birthday Club brings a program coordinator and volunteers to a child’s home, offering birthday gifts, balloons and snacks. On Sports Sundays, each child has an opportunity to play sports with volunteer coaches. Moms Night Out is an evening just for moms of children with special needs, providing them a chance to relax and enjoy, while connecting to other mothers facing similar challenges. Throughout the annual cycle, Holiday Fun includes celebrations before each of the Jewish holidays.
Butman continued, “Families find out about the program either by word of mouth, through our website or Facebook page, and we are part of several groups for parents of children with special needs.”
Jodi Sheinman of Scarsdale stated, “I got involved with The Friendship Circle when my son was 10 years old. Having a very small social circle is very hard for any child, let alone a child with special needs. Every Friday, my son would wait by the door for his volunteer to come. It means the world to these kids that someone is coming to have special time just for them. Over the years, we have had so many volunteers, and they have become part of our family. The volunteers visit on their college vacations, they have attended our family’s milestone moments such as bar mitzvahs and graduations. As time goes on, even with busy jobs, they stop by whenever they can. The Friendship Circle has made a huge impact in our lives for the better.”
“Volunteers are recruited in various ways,” explained Butman. “Sometimes, siblings or graduates of other Chabad programs and their friends are recruited as volunteers. Esti and Mendel, our coordinators, visit local schools to present this community service opportunity for teens. Many times, volunteers and their families spread the word to their friends!”
Lily Wurzburger, a New Rochelle teen volunteer, stated, “I know that it will make these kids that have harder lives feel special. I hope that by me hanging out and playing with them for two hours makes them feel special and included. I know that when I make a connection with a kid that I am brightening their day which makes me feel good. Also, it makes me feel good seeing the kids enjoy the program. I feel grateful to be able to participate in this amazing program and impact others in a positive way. Many teens become close with the kids that they hang out with at Friendship Circle.”
By Judy Berger