SPECIAL FOR THE AJT //

Sara Stein* was at wits end when she came to the Friendship Circle. She hadn’t slept in nights, and her days were filled with therapy appointments, school meetings and doctors visits with her son Billy*.

Aaron Hartman and Jonathan Kohana bond over cooking up a storm at Cooking Club.

Her two other children also needed and demanded a lot of her time. But it was Billy who drained her of energy and needed all her attention.

You see, Billy is different. Billy has autism.

It’s been a long and difficult journey for the Steins. The most painful part was to witness their son’s isolation; Billy had no friends, no social life at all.

But that all changed when Sara heard of the Friendship Circle of Atlanta, an organization dedicated to acceptance and friendship for individuals with special needs.

“I finally found a place where we belonged,” Stein said. “We were welcomed with open arms and love.

“I still worry about Billy, but I’m comforted that he now knows the beauty of friendship. And let’s not forget the weekly respite I get.”

Like many others in Atlanta, every week Billy spends time with two teenage volunteers who come to his house to play and socialize just like typical friends would. They play video games, go for walks, play ball and run, and for that hour, Billy feels like one of the boys; a regular kid with friends to call his own.

“I love my Friendship Circle friends and wait the whole week for their visit,” Billy said.

Not all participants can speak for themselves. But their smiles make it clear how they feel.

Nancy St. Lifer of Cobb County says that the Friendship Circle is a place for her daughter, Erica, to experience her Jewish heritage.

“When I tell Erica the date of the next program, there is always a countdown,” she said. “It’s a great activity for her independence. We are thrilled it’s here and hope it’s here to stay!”

Since its inception in late 2010, the Friendship Circle has reached out to more than 30 families of individuals with special needs. There’s a volunteer staff of 50-plus teen and college students.

Ben Halpern is one of the dedicated volunteers.

“True, our buddies with special needs are being given love and lifelong friends,” he said. “But they are the ones that are giving us the true gift.”

Through their work, volunteers are learning about acceptance, responsibility and respect. They have become empowered to make a difference in the lives of others.

“Individuals with special needs are exactly that – special,” said Rickelle New, Director of Friendship Circle of Atlanta. “They are caring, not judgmental, loving, friendly and funny. But all too often, we don’t get a chance to see that; it’s not because they don’t want friends or don’t need them – they simply lack the social skills to connect with others.

“That’s what the Friendship Circle is for: to love unconditionally.”

Through various programs – the Cooking Club, Jewish Experiential Learning Program, Holiday Events and Home Visits – volunteers and their special buddies get to bond and create lasting friendships.

The Friendship Circle is driven by the idea that within each person is a soul, and that regardless of any obstacles and challenges, these souls are sacred and worthy of boundless love.

This thought resonates across Atlanta’s Jewish community since the Friendship Circle continues to grow and reach out to all in need. Thanks to the organization’s dedicated volunteers and supporters, their dream of creating an inclusive, accepting community is becoming a living reality.

*Names changed to protect the identity of Friendship Circle participants. To get involved with The Friendship Circle, email office@fcatlanta.org, call (404) 423-3371, or visit fcatlanta.org for more info.