By Fran Memberg / fmemberg@atljewishtimes.com

Volunteer Sara, 17, and Joey, 15, enjoy Friendship Circle programming.

Volunteer Sara, 17, and Joey, 15, enjoy Friendship Circle programming.

Rickelle New experienced a negative childhood incident she knows her young children won’t have to deal with. In her native Australia, she encountered a special-needs child.

“It was strange, the unknown. I was terrified of her,” New said.

As a teenager, she turned in the other direction and was a volunteer with the Friendship Circle, a Jewish organization that brings together children with special needs and teenagers for fun and friendship.

“I wanted to get over the fear,” New said.

Now New is the director of Atlanta’s Friendship Circle. “I see the importance of getting involved as a young child,” she said. “My kids are growing up associated with people with special needs.”

Volunteer Brooke, 16, and special-needs child Sammy, 5, participate in a Friendship Circle event.

Volunteer Brooke, 16, and special-needs child Sammy, 5, participate in a Friendship Circle event.

Each of the 79 Friendship Circle locations worldwide is operated by the local Chabad-Lubavitch center and supported by the local community. Five thousand special-needs children and 11,000 teen volunteers have benefited from the program.

New launched Atlanta’s Friendship Circle at the beginning of 2011 with help from her husband, Yale New, who grew up in Sandy Springs and is the son of Chabad of Georgia’s Rabbi Yossi New. They live in Toco Hills with their nearly 2-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.

The couple lived in Australia for one year after they married, and when they moved to metro Atlanta, New started the local Friendship Circle. Yale New helped with fundraising, and Rickelle New made presentations at Jewish day schools and Jewish clubs at public schools.

Rickelle New leads Atlanta’s Friendship Circle with the support of husband Yale New.

Rickelle New leads Atlanta’s Friendship Circle with the support of husband Yale New.

Word of mouth spread, and today the special-needs population participating in Atlanta’s Friendship Circle is about equally split between children and adults. The youngest is 3; the eldest is 65.

Some 70 individuals with special needs participate, and the teen volunteers number 120.

Until this year, New juggled all Friendship Circle tasks: participant and volunteer recruitment, programming ideas, and execution. Now Chaiky Lipskier is the program coordinator, and Menucha Sperlin is the volunteer coordinator.

New focuses on managing the organization as a whole, including new program development, finding more families to participate, and establishing goals other than the general target of creating an exclusively Jewish community where special-needs children and adults feel welcome.

She said she would like to start an adult volunteer group.

Among many programs, New has planned monthly birthday parties around activities such as bowling, pottery and miniature golf; Jewish holiday programs offer hands-on fun for children to prepare for holidays.

Adults with special needs can attend cooking classes co-sponsored by Jewish Family & Career Services, and the Jewish Experiential Learning Program offers adults with special needs a monthly opportunity to gather for pizza and learning about Jewish topics of interest.

Mark Benator, 65, of Dunwoody has attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and has participated in the Friendship Circle for about two years.

“It’s great. I have friends in it and meet new people, and my niece is now a volunteer,” said Benator, who lives independently in a townhouse with two other special-needs adults. He works at Alon’s Bakery and Market and is a licensed real estate agent.

He said skills he has learned at the Friendship Circle and other Jewish special-needs programs through the years have helped him “concentrate to do my job.”

Mindy and James Weinberg’s 12-year-old son is on the autism spectrum. They learned about the Friendship Circle from one of their Congregation Or Hadash rabbis. Mindy Weinberg said the program helps her son socially. “He has no regular peers to hang out with. His teen friend [a volunteer] at Friendship Circle is his only social outlet.”

Weinberg said her son enjoys the monthly birthday parties and learning about Jewish holidays. “We know he’s happy there.”

The Weinbergs, who live in Sandy Springs, have enjoyed meeting other parents whose children attend the Friendship Circle and like the expanded programming.

Jennifer Freedman, who graduated from the Weber School in May, says that volunteering with the Friendship Circle puts her own problems in perspective.

Jennifer Freedman, who graduated from the Weber School in May, says that volunteering with the Friendship Circle puts her own problems in perspective.

East Cobb resident and new Weber School graduate Jennifer Freedman has volunteered one on one through the Friendship Circle for two years with a 7-year-old who was nonverbal but now speaks. Freedman sees her interaction as offering friendship to a girl who doesn’t have too many friends.

She has taken her volunteerism to heart. “It puts everything into perspective. My issues aren’t as serious as they seem,” Freedman said. “It’s given my life new meaning and helped me decide to work with special-needs kids.”

New said the Friendship Circle for the teens isn’t just learning about special needs. “It’s about inclusion and how volunteers learn about giving and love. They learn from the special needs as well as vice versa.”

The special-needs participants who are verbal tell New about their favorite Friendship Circle activities, how they are growing in self-confidence and how they are learning tools to make friends outside the group. What does New like hearing? “I love my friends at Friendship Circle.”