Imagine swimming in freezing water with people kicking your head and swimming on top of you because you can’t see, almost drowning because you can’t come up for air and then biking 100 miles and running a marathon without resting in between.
One such inspiring person, blind from birth, has completed 17 marathons and an Ironman Triathlon of running, swimming and biking nonstop. He looks at life itself as a marathon, feeling invincible at the beginning and then pushing himself to succeed despite the odds.
Richard Bernstein, a lawyer, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, radio show host, disabilities advocate and consultant to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), who spoke at the Friendship Circle’s Evening of Recognition at the Marconi Automotive Museum in Tustin on May 1, thinks that if you choose to believe certain things, your life will be enriched. All else has been predetermined, he said.
Bernstein gave a rousing keynote speech to 220 teenage volunteers – honored for bringing joy to and enhancing the lives of children and young adults with special needs – as well as the many people who came to celebrate their achievements. As he explained, “It is easy to have a relationship with Hashem (God) when things are good, but Hashem loves those who know struggle the best. The most vulnerable among us have the strongest connection with our creator.
Bernstein believes that “an easy life doesn’t mean a good one, but a hard life can offer a sense of fulfillment.” He added, “No matter how hard things get, I can promise you that you will always have what you need when you need it.”
Among his other activities, Bernstein chose to become a consultant to the IDF, because that organization wants to give everybody who wants to serve the country the ability to do so. “Seeing a severely disabled person face his fears in the Jerusalem Marathon helped other people,” he said. “Hashem wants us to spend our energy getting on with it, not getting over it.”
Bernstein’s “yes-I-can” attitude was the perfect capstone to The Friendship Circle’s annual Evening of Recognition, which “is testament to the value our community places on The Friendship Circle’s work,” according to its director, Chani Mintz. “We show our volunteers that what they do matters and has a very real and positive effect,” she added. “They are building a more inclusive and accepting world. We send a strong message of love and support to families of children and young adults with special needs.”
Mintz, the wife of Rabbi Reuven Mintz, spiritual leader of Chabad Jewish Center of Newport Beach, also said that “heroes come in many shapes and sizes.” She cited the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, who said that one must never be insensitive to the cry of a child, that one must never be too distracted to listen and that one must put all else aside and reach out to a child who cries out.
“We have to turn up the volume on our own inner channels of sensitivity to hear the cries of children with special needs,” she said. “The teens who are part of The Friendship Circle use their own precious time to work with kids with special needs, to back up their feelings with deeds.”
Mintz added, “These teens know the powerful effect of one hour of attention and friendship. The Friendship Circle gives these kids with special needs their voices.”
Fellowship awards and college scholarships were awarded to the volunteers. Collectively they have volunteered over 15,000 hours, brightening the lives of children and young adults with special needs through love and friendship, Mintz said.
Mintz described the work of The Friendship Circle and its special volunteers: “Throughout our community, there are thousands of children with special needs who, along with their families, often live with a sense of desperation and isolation. This includes children with Autism, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and related disorders or various emotional or physical challenges that prevent children from comfortably interacting with peers and community. The Friendship Circle addresses the challenges facing these children and families in a way that celebrates rather than laments their uniqueness and individuality.”
Founded in Orange County in 2006, the centerpiece of The Friendship Circle program is the pairing of professionally trained teenagers with the special children for weekly home visits. It extends from there to weekend events, summer camp and a full range of activities.
By integrating the wisdom of professionals and the energetic spirit of teenagers, The Friendship Circle brings out “the best from within all of those involved,” Mintz said. “It has been found that by utilizing the gift of friendship, the young volunteers succeed in reaching the children in ways that most forms of therapy do not. Furthermore, the program has had a profound effect on the teenagers themselves – instilling within them the values of giving and gratitude.”
The underlying philosophy of The Friendship Circle is “that every child is an entire world – needy and worthy of love, laughter, nurturing and connection,” Mintz explained. “A child with special needs feels the pain of loneliness and euphoria of friendship. Indeed the real beauty of The Friendship Circle is that it has so many winners: the special needs children, their families, the teenage volunteers, the staff members and the benevolent supporters. All are part of a seamless circle of giving and sharing. What can be more satisfying and worthwhile than brightening the world of a child through love and laughter, companionship and friendship?
For more information about the Evening of Recognition and The Friendship Circle, please contact: Chani Mintz at (949) 689-8616 or email info@FriendshipCircleOC.org.
About The Friendship Circle
The Friendship Circle is a non-profit organization that provides programs and support to the families of individuals with special needs. In addition, The Friendship Circle enriches its network of volunteers by enabling them to reap the rewards of selfless giving. It gives families of individuals with special needs and teen volunteers the opportunity to form real friendships within a non-judgmental and supportive community. Programs include: one on one programs such as friends at home weekly visits, lunch at school buddies and birthday parties; group settings: groups programming such as Sunday Circle and Young Adult Circle, summer and winter camp, volunteer club and life skills programs and community events; and support groups, including Mom’s Night Out, Schmooze Crew Support Group, Sibling Workshops and Parent Webinars.