When Rabbi Mendy and Leah Levertov started the Friendship Circle of Arizona in 2005, they had three volunteers. Today the organization has more than 100 teen volunteers that work with about 35 children with special needs.
The Friendship Circle, an international Chabad-Lubavitch program with 79 locations worldwide, offers programs bringing teen volunteers and children with special needs together for activities, friendship and fun. The programs are offered to families of all streams of Judaism regardless of affiliation.
For the Levertovs, running the Friendship Circle is a labor of love. “I’m so inspired by the moms of the kids with special needs and so inspired by the teen volunteers,” Leah says. “It’s amazing how communities come together to offer their support. It’s a win-win for everybody – the families, the communities, the children and the volunteers. Everybody gains.”
Here is a listing of some of the Friendship Circle’s programs:
Friends at Home
Friends at Home is “the heart” of programs of the Friendship Circle, Leah says. Two teen volunteers, typically eighth-graders and up, are matched with a child with special needs and then go to child’s home for a play date. “Home is where the kids feel most comfortable. They’re in their own domain,” she says. “Kids with special needs typically don’t get play dates.” The visit also gives the parents, who must be at home during the visit, an hour of respite. “Incredible relationships have been formed,” Leah says. A Friends at Home participant recently became a bat mitzvah at Congregation Or Chadash, and her buddy, now in college, came home to celebrate the bat mitzvah with her.
A two-hour drop-off program at Chabad of Arizona, the Sunday Circle pairs high school students with children with special needs for a structured two hours of fun. During the first hour, the children participate in sensory arts – music and art projects – as well as movement, including yoga and Zumba.
In the second hour, there’s a science program and circle time based on a Judaic theme, which includes a story, game and a discussion. Sessions are led by professional instructors.
Teen volunteers come a half-hour early and the Levertovs provide lunch. “I give the volunteers a chance to get the shmoozing out of their system,” Leah says. Then she runs through the schedule with the teens and gives them instructions about the activities. The Sunday Circle draws up to 35 participants and parents have the option of staying in the Parent Lounge for coffee and cake or they can leave and have two hours to themselves.
The Teen Scene
Friendship Circle teens and teen volunteers come together once a month to “hang out” and do activities. This year’s theme is “Around the Town” and the teens have gone to the Musical Instrument Museum, bowling and to the Seth Korey Tennis Academy. This program has about 20-25 teens and volunteers and is led by Esther Grabowsky.
The Birthday Club was inspired by a parent of a special needs child who told Leah that her child never got invited to a birthday party and never came home with a birthday bag. Leah remedied the situation by starting the Birthday Club that meets four times a year to celebrate birthdays of children with special needs. One party was held at The Play Factory and owner Simon Kreisberger donated the party “from beginning to end,” Leah says. Jambo Park has also donated a party. Leah supplies the kosher cake and goody bags for the celebration.
For the past five years, the Friendship Circle has held winter camp on the first three days of winter break. “We do trips, arts and crafts, activities, math and science projects and tefillah because it’s a Jewish camp,” Leah says. Winter Camp gives the children a full camp experience. In addition to the teen volunteers, Leah hires a special-education teacher to make sure the program runs smoothly.
For Jewish holidays, The Levertovs invite the families of the children with special needs and the families of the volunteers to celebrate together. They’ve held sukkah parties, Hanukkah bowling nights, a Rosh Hashanah fair, Tu B’Shevat dinners, Shabbat dinners and last year, a woodworking workshop at Home Depot where the children learned to make menorahs. The holiday celebrations are always fun and accepting, Leah says. “It’s just a warm place to celebrate and be proud of being who we are.”
Young Adult Circle
This group brings together young adult volunteers and young adults with special needs. “It’s completely social,” Leah says. “Getting out is much harder for young adults than kids.” Adult volunteers come from the community and from Chabad at Arizona State University.
Mom’s Night Out
Events have included challah baking, a spa night and painting at an art studio. “They may not know each other and they come from different temples and different affiliations, but they network and support each other,” Leah says.
Jonathan’s Walk 4 Friendship
Jonathan’s Walk 4 Friendship, named for a Friendship Circle member who died several years ago, brings the community together for “an afternoon of fun and demonstration of community awareness, solidarity and support.” The money raised from the walk supports Friendship Circle programs.
On April 30, The Friendship Circle will hold its annual evening of appreciation with speaker Tim Harris of Tim’s Place in Albuquerque, N.M.
For more information about the Friendship Circle, call 602-861-6100 or visit fcaz.org.