“These were all done by the children, said Chani Mintz, Director of the Friendship Circle, the program designed for children with special needs. “These children are truly special,” she added. “They may be deficient in some areas, like social skills, but often that absence is compensated by skills and talents in a variety of other areas that continues to surprise and delight.”
“Throughout the community there are many hundreds of children with special needs who, along with their families, often live with a sense of desperation and isolation,” said Rabbi Rueven Mintz who is quick to point out that the success of the Friendship Circle is due in large part to Chani’s passion and dedication. “I‘ve always had a soft spot for children with special needs,” she said. Under her leadership, the program has experienced tremendous growth.
“I love the purity and innocence of the children; once they open up, you see how much they have to offer,” Chani continued. “What allows this blossoming is compassion, friendship and love, and an environment that does not set limits on each child’s potential. And while the effect on the children is often astounding, when parents see their children excelling and sharing their talents, it expands their vision and understanding of what their child may be capable of doing.”
The centerpiece of the Friendship Circle program, founded in 2006, is the “Friends at Home” program which pairs local teenagers with the children for home visits. Teens are matched with a special needs child and meet with him or her at home for 60-90 minutes per week.
In addition to providing friendship and mentorship for the children, Jewish teens interact with other Jewish teens, and do volunteer work in the community.
“In appreciation and recognition of the invaluable work our teens do we created the Teen Scene,” said Chani. Teen volunteers get together and participate in a variety of activities. “It’s a chance for us to interact with the teens a little more and a perfect time for them to socialize with each other, strengthening the ties between Jewish youth all over Orange County,” she added. One of the most rewarding aspects of the Friendship Circle is the effect it has on the teens. In addition to the time they spend with special needs children, teens go through training, so it is truly an investment of time. “Many come in reluctantly,” commented Chani. “They are there to do a mitzvah project or fulfill some other community service requirement. But rarely does any volunteer leave after the ‘required time.’” Teens learn about their own gifts and experience the joy in being of service.
One young man was barely verbal when he first joined the program as a boy. Today he is not only fully verbal, but now volunteers, and has remained friends with his teen volunteer to this day. This is not a rarity. The relationship between volunteer and child often goes on for years.
Over the years the Friendship Circle has developed a full range of activities and events, that cater to a wide spectrum of children with special needs, as well as their families.
Those programs include the Sunday Circle, where kids participate in a wide variety of activities, both indoors and outdoors, including sports and art projects often related to the Jewish calendar. Art projects chosen are specially designed for two people, giving the children and their buddies some solid bonding time. Sunday Circle also means personal time for parents, who can drop off their children in capable hands, and have one less worry on their mind.
Chani noticed how dressed up one mother was when she dropped off her child one Sunday. “My husband and I have a date today,” said the mom. “It is our first since our son was born.”
To further alleviate the stress of those mothers of special needs children, a new program was created. “The stresses these mothers have today can seem overwhelming,” said Chani. “That’s why the Friendship Circle has developed Mom’s Night Out – a program just for the Moms. Monthly outings provide an opportunity for moms to unwind and relax. “We also pamper them with a variety of themed events.”
Mom’s also need a supportive environment with a chance to talk about their concerns. “Coffee Chat” is the support group that provides that environment. “For moms who have felt alone and isolated,” said Chani, “this is a time for them to connect with other mothers.” It has also brought families together who have essentially formed their own small community. “Divorce is 20% higher in these families,” added Chani. “This program has allowed families to become involved in each other’s lives and often develop long-term relationships.”
Families with little or no experience, who are facing a lifetime with a special needs child, often have to confront challenges for which they were never prepared. Many have tried other programs and have been disappointed. “We under promise and over deliver!” said Chani. Many families come into the program without much expectation. “Our goal is not only to ‘surprise’ them, but to delight them as well, as they witness their children thrive. We regularly seek feedback from families which in turn has led to new programs.”
Their first ever “Winter Camp” went off very well. It was “jam packed” with exciting trips that gave the children the opportunity to visit some of our local attractions. From Boomers to Zoomers and the Long Beach Aquarium to Glow in the Dark Golf… they did it all.
Another new programs “Hangin’ With Friends” is for young adults with special needs, fifteen years old, and their volunteers. “As our higher functioning children have begun to age, we recognized the need for a different kind of program for them,” said Chani. Social outings, like trips to Downtown Disney to see a film, educational field trips, hikes, scavenger hunts and community service projects, provide them with ongoing opportunities to make new memories with their friends.
For these high functioning adults, the Friendship Circle has developed a program designed to teach basic life skills, so that they may ultimately achieve some level of independence. From making snacks to cooking full-blown meals for themselves, to purchasing food at the grocery store, this life skills program offers some comfort to parents who worry what will happen to their children when they are no longer able, or around to care for them. Young adults learn how to ride a bus, use the library and not fear those in uniform. For example, a visit to the fire station not only reduces the anxiety many may have, but also provides them with important information about fire safety. Especially as they learn to use the kitchen.
As the program grows, so does the need for space. Their building is currently undergoing an expansion that will allow all the programs to take place in one location. The renovation will include an updated kitchen, art studio, resource library and therapy rooms. There will also be open spaces for music and dance—something the participants really enjoy. The remodel will enhance and enable the continued growth of the program.
“Every child is special and has a soul and spirit that deserves love and attention,” says Chani. Those who have special needs offer us an opportunity to recognize the amazing gifts each of us has, and how much we can all contribute to a more compassionate and loving community. For more information please visit www.friendshipcircleoc.org or call (949) 721-9800.
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.