Friendship Circle of Atlanta’s annual benefit event Sunday, March 18, combines brunch with a fashion show featuring program participants walking alongside volunteers and friends
Led by Yale and Rickelle New, the nonprofit Friendship Circle provides birthday parties, Friends@Home and Jewish holiday events for more than 80 children and adults with special needs. Most programs are free to participants, for whom having friends is life-changing.
I know because my son Sammy has been involved with Friendship Circle since he was 3 years old.
Sammy loves the birthday parties, but his participation in the Friends@Home program is special to our whole family. In this program, two teen volunteers come to play with Sammy every Sunday. I’d like to share a glimpse into our @home circle.
Sammy is now 8. His teenage friends are Yaniv Zigmond, 14, who has been part of our circle for more than two years, and Micah Bronfman, 15, who is new to our family. The teen volunteers’ families support them.
“He came home telling me that he had really bonded with one of the campers and was having so much fun teaching him to play tennis,” Micah’s mom, Ronit Walker, said about her son, who met Sammy at a Friendship Circle tennis camp. “He enjoyed the experience so much that he wanted to participate in Friendship Circle all year. He was thrilled when he was paired with Sammy again.”
She said Micah is the youngest of three children, so he likes being a big brother to Sammy. “I enjoy hearing about their experiences together — making instruments out of paper, riding on recycling bin sleds in the snow or even just exploring the neighborhood. Whenever I pick Micah up from his Friendship Circle date, he is smiling.”
Leah Zigmond said that because son Yaniv has moved around a lot, he “had a special understanding of the power of friendship to help someone feel at home.”
“Yaniv is already a big brother at home,” she said. “However, visiting Sammy gave him a unique opportunity to learn how to be a friend to an even younger child, how to give of himself, how to support and encourage.”
Zigmond said Yaniv has benefited from working with a slightly older teen volunteer each year. “He has learned that we really all need the same things: other people we can relate to, share fun times with and depend on.”
Yaniv started with about eight weeks of training in the Mitzvah Volunteer Program.
Most of what I learned is that everyone needs pretty much the same things — to be listened to and heard and paid attention to — and that everyone needs friends,” he said.
He helps every few months with birthday celebrations, which have ranged from going to the zoo to bowling to picking apples.
“These are great experiences that I will remember for a long time and which really teach me about the power of community and friendship. However, the best part about the Friendship Circle for me has been my visits with Sammy,” Yaniv said.
Those visits last about an hour each Sunday and have included making a lemonade stand and selling cookies.
“I’ve learned a lot from my time with Sammy. Mostly I have learned how much friends matter and that you should cherish all of your moments with them,” Yaniv said. “This means that you should not take your friends for granted and that you should always look for ways to be a good friend to those around you.”
Micah mentioned going sledding and creating a tribute to parrots during his visits with Sammy.
“On one occasion when we could not go outside due to the cold, we created a band. I played the newspaper, he played the cups, and Yaniv hummed,” Micah said. “Sadly, we have not reached the top 100 yet, but we are on the way.”
He added: “From the first time I met Sammy, I knew we would be great friends. While other people played tennis, Sammy and I would look at pictures of dogs, or he would play ventriloquist and give voices to his action figures from the ‘Rugrats.’”
Sammy said it’s “awesome” to have teenage friends come to the house every week.
“They are like royalty to me because they are so nice. We take walks together and pet dogs. We have a band inside when it rains. We talk about how our day was. We make up shows and do them for my mom. We like to hang out with each other, and I love it when they come over,” he said.
As Sammy’s parents, Friendship Circle is very important to my husband and me. The program attracts amazing young people. Most of the teens who have worked with Sammy come back year after year to volunteer until they go to college, then visit him during their school breaks.
My son has gotten so much out of having these excellent role models in his life. I see a confidence in him that grows stronger every year.
We belong to a wonderful synagogue, but sometimes a Chanukah or Purim program can be too loud and overwhelming for Sammy. Friendship Circle has been a wonderful resource, providing sensory-friendly programs with one-on-one support. And Sammy makes lots of friends through Friendship Circle holiday programs and birthday parties.
“We’re here for anyone who has trouble making friends,” Rickelle New said when I asked her once who was eligible for Friendship Circle programs.
What a powerful mission.