Children and young adults with special needs build bonds with local volunteers as part of the Friendship Circle.
By Sharon Stello
Sometimes, making friends is hard. Luckily, Friendship Circle is ready to lend a helping hand, partnering teens and other volunteers with children and young adults who have autism or other special needs. Through fun activities from sports to cooking, they develop close connections.
Founded in 2006, the Newport Beach group is part of an international organization that started in 1994 in Detroit and now boasts 81 chapters from the U.S. to Canada, the U.K., South Africa, Australia and beyond. The goal is to foster friendship and inclusion for those with special needs through social, recreational and educational programs, and to offer support for their families.
The Newport chapter has more than 325 volunteers and over 500 participants with conditions ranging from autism to cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, epilepsy, severe attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and social anxiety. A wide range of programs include winter and summer camps, soccer and basketball classes, Birthday Club and Friends at Home, where teen volunteers spend time with a child at their own home—the environment that’s most comfortable for the kids—either playing games, baking cookies, doing art projects, singing or reading stories.
“It’s incredible to see the progress and improvement of the children with special needs as well as the impact it makes on the teen volunteers,” says Chani Mintz, director of the local Friendship Circle nonprofit, which is funded by donations and a few grants. All of the programs are offered for free, except for the camps, but scholarships are available if needed.
A building for the Friendship Center for Special Needs, located on the edge of the Back Bay, was acquired in 2014 and underwent extensive renovations to create therapy rooms including an art studio, instructional kitchen, teen lounge and multisensory space, which was completed last August.
In the new kitchen, cooking classes are offered. Participants learn to make everything from a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to pizza as well as covering food safety and how to use a knife. After preparing their dishes, the group enjoys eating together. The organization is also preparing to offer a culinary academy to help train the students for restaurant jobs.
The Snoezelen Multisensory Room includes colored bubbles moving inside clear columns, a ball pit, colored light ropes and a bean bag that vibrates to the beat of music. This technology helps children with special needs to achieve a calm state of mind that’s needed to absorb cognitive and other types of therapy. Time spent in this space also has been found to drastically increase their focused attention span. One piece of equipment allows projections to be displayed on the floor where a seated child can interact with the images, activating sounds and pictures with the slightest gesture, which encourages new movements and boosts muscle strength, especially for kids with cerebral palsy.
“Many of our children have increased their functionality and some higher functioning kids have been mainstreamed into regular schools and other programs as a result of the various Friendship Circle programs,” Mintz says.
During the pandemic shutdown, Friendship Circle quickly moved programs online with Zoom sessions offered all day. Now, with in-person sessions back in full swing, kids may come for a partial or whole day of activities, providing enrichment and social time for them and a break for moms and dads. Support programs help parents connect with each other, too.
Volunteers also find the program worthwhile. Many sign up to satisfy a community service requirement for school, but often make lasting friendships and learn a lot. Mintz says some volunteers choose a local college to stay near their buddy in the program and some even go on to work in special education. “It’s a real connection, and the difference they’ve made is unbelievable,” Mintz says, adding that the teens use what they learn back at their own campuses.
Through Lunch Buddies, the teens invite those who seem lonely to join their table for lunch. “Our goal is to make inclusion a normal thing—not just at Friendship Circle,” Mintz says.