Teen volunteers and children with special needs both benefit

By Mindy Rubenstein | mrubenstein@atljewishtimes.com

Rabbi Yale and Rickelle New began Friendship Circle of Atlanta in December 2011, soon after the couple married. From their home in Toco Hills, they have worked tirelessly to grow the program into a thriving resource, matching teenage volunteers with children who have special needs.

“When we first started, we had about 10 participants and 20 volunteers,” Rickelle New said. “We now have 80 participants and 120 volunteers.”

Volunteer Ruthie Tanenbaum with Etai (Photos courtesy of Chabad.org)

Volunteer Ruthie Tanenbaum with Etai (Photos courtesy of Chabad.org)

A native of Atlanta, the rabbi grew up in Sandy Springs, where his parents, Rabbi Yossi and Dassie New, have run Congregation Beth Tefillah and Chabad of Georgia for three decades. Like the elder Rabbi New, Rickelle New is originally from Melbourne, Australia.

Friendship Circle is one of the fastest-growing Jewish organizations for children with special needs. With 79 locations around the world, it has forged friendships between 5,000 kids and nearly 11,000 teen volunteers.

“The teens are craving to make a difference,” Rickelle New said. “They are so dedicated to their special friends. Some started for the community-service aspect, but they continued for that unparalleled feeling of impacting someone’s life in a positive way. It changes not just their special friend, but themselves as well.”

The young Chabad couple works hard to spread the word about the mission. “One of our challenges is getting Friendship Circle out there. We want to make it a household name,” Rickelle New said, “so that even if you don’t have a child with special needs or don’t volunteer, you still know who we are and what we do.”

Many synagogues and schools have opened their doors to Friendship Circle and have encouraged community involvement, she said. “They see the importance of acceptance for all, as well as for empowering our teens to be leaders and institute change.”

Part of the program is intended to offer some respite to the parents.

“Receiving calls from parents describing the impact their volunteer has had on their family goes beyond words, and email from volunteers and their parents expressing how much volunteering has brought to their lives makes it so rewarding,” she said. “It’s this kind of feedback that makes the hard work, late nights and challenges well worth it.”

One of the highlights, the rebbetzin added, is being at the programs and “seeing those smiles.”

Rabbi Yale and Rickelle New are the co-directors of Friendship Circle of Atlanta.

Rabbi Yale and Rickelle New are the co-directors of Friendship Circle of Atlanta.

During the annual volunteer recognition event, the 300 attendees gave thunderous applause and a standing ovation to guest speaker Richard Bernstein of the Michigan Supreme Court, the first blind man elected a state Supreme Court justice. He took office Jan. 1.

His appearance, the News said, was a celebration of overcoming adversity.

One mother from Atlanta — parents asked that their names not be used out of concern for their children’s privacy — said of her daughter’s experience with Friendship Circle: “Rachel loves belonging to a warm and caring group of people. This has given her a feeling of self-confidence when she approaches others in the community, as well as new situations.

“She’s not as shy, and she is willing to strike up a conversation more freely. She lights up when she sees someone from Friendship Circle outside of one of the programs, whether it’s in shul or at the store.”

A Cobb County mother wrote: “My son, Zach, has a group to go to that accepts him as he is. He doesn’t have to worry about saying or doing something odd, and he can be himself.”

The program is equally beneficial for the volunteers, with lots of similar testimony about how their lives have changed through their involvement.

“Through this program, I have had the chance to get to know Marla and learn about the obstacles she and her parents face,” volunteer Michelle Nelkin said. “I believe that forming a relationship with Marla has made me a better person because she and her loving family inspire me to be more accepting, caring and patient. In all, I’ve gained perspective, appreciation and a whole lot of friends.”