Every Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., Alysson Beckman and Julie Pinchak go to Victoria Maddis' house to hang out and play. What makes this situation unique is that Alysson and Julie are both 16-year-old high school students, while Victoria is a 7-year-old girl with a neurological disorder. They have been brought together by The Friendship Circle of the Conejo Valley, a new outreach effort designed to enrich the lives of Jewish children with special needs and their families.
The Friendship Circle and its Friends at Home program pairs local teenagers with families of special-needs kids in order to provide a social outlet for disabled children and support for their often over-extended parents. The Agoura-based Conejo Friendship Circle is modeled after the flagship program in Detroit, which was founded in 1994 by Rabbi Levi and Bassi Shemtov of the Lubavitch Foundation, a branch of Chabad-Lubavitch. The Conejo Friendship Circle was launched by its director, Rabbi Yisroel Levine, and assistant directors Chanie Malamud and Devorah L. Rodal in April 2002. The program is administered by Chabad of the Conejo, and currently boasts 100 teen volunteers and 50 families with special- needs children, ages 4 to 13.
The teenagers who volunteer their time learn the value of giving through the experience of making a difference in a child's life.
Michelle Levy, a 17-year-old student at Oak Park High School, learned about the organization from a friend at Los Angeles Hebrew High. Levy, who works with a 6-year-old autistic child, said that "although at times it can be difficult, it's about having fun and being open," and said that the reward she reaps from being involved always "masks" the difficulty for her.
"I've told others to get involved," she said. "It's a help for the family to have a little bit of time, and it is so good for us because it's really special to connect with someone you wouldn't otherwise know. It's amazing."
What makes The Friendship Circle unique is that the one-on-one contact between the child and the teen volunteers takes place in the environment the children are most comfortable in: their own home. Families interested in enrolling in the program are interviewed and evaluated by the directors and a speech pathologist.
The Friendship Circle addresses many types of special needs, ranging from autism and blindness to ADHD and bipolar disorder. Rodal stressed that this program is "truly open to anyone who feels that they need a friend."
Teen volunteers are carefully screened, selected and trained to work with the children, and are then paired with a second volunteer and a special needs child in the program. The volunteers visit with the child once a week for an hour. Their role is to play and interact with the child, while giving the parents a much-needed respite. They can bake cookies, play games, read books or do almost anything the child wants.
"This program is wonderful," said Robin Felton, a Calabasas mom whose 6-and-a-half-year-old son Jonah is autistic. "This is the only time that's really just for fun. Jonah's life is so therapeutic, and everyone has an agenda related to an IEP [school] goal. His therapy is all adult driven. These girls [from the Friendship Circle] come every Sunday afternoon, and they are completely focused on Jonah and what he wants. It's not babysitting, it's not respite, it's just a gift."
Felton said that the rest of the family also benefits from this program. Hilary Srole and Sami Wellerstien make an extra effort to share their attention with Jonah's two brothers, ages 9 and 4.
Erica and Matthew Kane's family has been with Conejo's Friendship Circle since its inception. Like many of the children in the program, Kane's daughter Abby, 6, is autistic; Abby has a 20-month-old brother and an 8-year-old sister.
"Kids thrive on the continuity" Erica Kane said. "We are paired up with two wonderful high school seniors. They come every Sunday, and the kids really look forward to it. The girls are very devoted, and the kids are all very bonded to them. They jump rope, play in the yard, play with Play-Doh ... it's very healthy for them."
Rodal explained that teen volunteers must provide references as well as copies of past report cards and an explanation of why they are interested in volunteering in The Friendship Circle. All teens attend an hour and a half training session run by the directors, a speech pathologist, a family liaison and a parent of a special-needs child. There may also be additional training provided for a particularly difficult situation, as in the case of a child currently in the program who is blind, autistic and developmentally delayed. In the future, Jewish Family Service will provide this training, and is currently working to make the sessions more interactive.
Rodal and Malamud always accompany the teens on their first visit to their assigned family, and follow up regularly with both the families and the teens. In addition, each teen is responsible to report back to Rodal and Malamud via e-mail (or standard mail) postcard after each visit.
Becoming a member of the Friendship Circle's Volunteer Club is yet another benefit for the teens. It is a place for the teenagers to come together, discuss their experiences, and just have a good time.
"They help others, but they also have a lot of fun," Rodal said.
"I want these children to feel like they have someone to lean on when I come to visit them," said Andrea Kramer, another 15-year-old Friendship Circle volunteer who attends Milken Community High School. "Seeing a child feeling good will boost up their life as well as mine. I want to know that a child is feeling even a tiny bit better because of me."
To learn more about the Friendship Circle, visit the program's Web site at www.friendshipcircle.com or call (818) 991-0991.