Friendship Circle brings joy to special-needs kids

Posted 7/18/12

About once a week, 10-year-old Lilly Roberts hangs out with friends at her Highlands Ranch home. The girls make cookies, paint their nails, create …

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Friendship Circle brings joy to special-needs kids

Posted

About once a week, 10-year-old Lilly Roberts hangs out with friends at her Highlands Ranch home. The girls make cookies, paint their nails, create art projects and laugh, their activities indistinguishable from those of other friends.

But Lilly’s visitors are teenagers volunteering their time through the Friendship Circle, a program managed by The Jewish Center in Lone Tree, and Lilly has special needs that make socializing a challenge.

The program, just eight months old, already links 70 families with special-needs children. In addition to in-home visits from teen volunteers, the program sponsors group outings, holiday gatherings, birthday celebrations and other events. All of it is at no charge to the families, and all of it is available to anyone, regardless of religious denomination.

“We’re all God’s children,” said Rabbi Avraham Mintz.

A growing number of requests for program geared toward special-needs children prompted Mintz to launch the local Friendship Circle.

The first Friendship Circle began in Detroit in 1994. Today, 79 communities around the world have a Friendship Circle, all of them operated by the local Jewish community center.

“There are a lot of services out there” for special-needs children, Mintz said, “but one thing very visibly missing was companionship and friendship for the child. They’re just like anyone in their need for friendship.”

Lilly, whom Cella and her husband Eric adopted from China as a toddler, has sensory integration problems, ADHD, a mood disorder and dyslexia, among other issues. Social challenges typically accompany all those issues, her mother said.

“She got kind of a big whammy,” Cella said. “The social issue usually is the number one issue with these kids. She actually has been in socials skills classes.

“But this is at a whole different level. It gives me joy, knowing that she has her own special friends.”

In addition to the teenage girls who come to Lilly’s home, she and her family have met other special-needs children and their families. Their shared challenges create a deep bond among the families.

Further benefiting the Robertses, their older daughter, Zoe, also volunteers with the program. Students who do so can earn community service credits.

“They’ve always been at the total opposite end of spectrum,” Cella said of her daughters. “So this has been absolutely incredible.”

Mintz echoed that sentiment.

“I see miracles happening on a regular basis with the Friendship Circle,” he said. “It’s been helping the siblings of the special-needs children, the teens who volunteer, the parents and the children.”

The program brings out the best in its teen volunteers, whom Mintz said are reliable and giving of both their time and affection.

Cella describes those she’s met through the Friendship Circle as “extended family.”

“It’s good support,” she said. “It’s a relief for the family. And it’s quality social time for Lilly, like all of us need.”

For more information, call the Chabad Jewish Center of South Metro Denver at 303-792-7222 or visit www.denverjewishcenter.com.

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