It was an elegant evening of scrumptious desserts against the beautiful backdrop of the Marconi Auto Museum. Even more, the Friendship Circle Evening of Appreciation on May 25 was a celebration of love, friendship and hope that made everybody feel good. It proved, as hearing-impaired comedienne Kathy Buckley said, that “There is no such thing as a disability. There is only a disability in attitude.”
Buckley should know. In addition to her hearing impairment, she has survived two serious auto accidents and cancer. She started her education at a school for the developmentally disabled, because someone failed to diagnose her hearing problem. Today, she is both funny and upbeat, an appropriate role model for those who seek to surmount challenges.
“All anybody wants in life is to be treated with respect, but you have to give it, and to do that, you have to have respect for yourself,” Buckley said. “There are no limits to what we can achieve with our lives, and nobody goes through anything alone.”
The Friendship Circle, which brightens the lives of children with special needs through love and friendship, pairs the children with teen “buddies.” Those who give garner just as much enjoyment as those who receive. While the Friendship Circle offers acceptance and inclusion for children with special needs, it helps teens to understand that they can make a difference.
As Rabbi Reuven Mintz of Chabad Jewish Center of Newport Beach — whose wife, Chani, coordinates the program in Orange County — said, “The Friendship Circle has a harmonious way of bringing enjoyment to everyone involved with this symphony of love.”
Friendship Circle volunteers come from all streams of Judaism. Since 2001 Friendship Circles have been started in over 80 locations in 22 states and 7 countries.
According to Chani Mintz, everyone yearns for a cure for diseases and disabilities, but the Friendship Circle addresses the effects of these diseases and conditions on the lives of the families. The idea is to change the rest of the world’s perspectives, to help people look at the situation through different lenses. She described the relationship of the children, staff, volunteers, supporters and sponsors as seamless.
“Every soul is born with its own strengths and weaknesses and is part of God here on earth,” she said. “We all come from the same source. When you love your fellow as an extension of yourself, the external differences don’t matter at all. We love, cherish and celebrate these kids as if they are part of us, because they are.”
Karen Gerber, mother of Jay Gerber, praised the “selfless young people who make such a difference.” The Friendship Circle has provided “loving, caring friends” for her son for many years, and the volunteers “make time for special kids.”
Elaine Blieden, mother of both a volunteer and an autistic child, said that her daughter, Dani, has learned friendship, compassion and enjoyment as a volunteer. “Seeing her buddy smile makes her day,” said Blieden, who added that her son, Adam, has reached a comfort level and has learned Judaica from his buddy.
Ally Kaufman, a ninth grader at Hebrew Academy, said that she became interested in the Friendship Circle in the fifth grade. Her mother is a special education teacher, and she “saw that the kids had trouble interacting.”
Kaufman’s first buddy was an 8-year-old with cerebral palsy, and she learned about opportunities for wheelchair-bound people. She bonded with her second buddy, who is autistic and nonverbal, over their mutual love of books.
“I didn’t expect that I would go on such a fantastic journey,” she said. “Friendship Circle makes such a difference in the life of both the kids and the volunteers.”
Miriam Ciner, a 2011 graduate of Hebrew Academy, likes to see “the faces of the kids light up,” adding that “When volunteers share themselves, it inspires parents and families. When we help others, we gain the most.”
She concluded, “Solomon said that every human being has an inner flame. Volunteers are the keepers of that flame.”
Kathy Buckley put it another way: “Life is about what you contribute.”
Teen volunteers honored were Gabriel Abrams, Jay Adelberg, Daniel Albert, Lisa Albert, Gabrielle Albert, Amanda Ascher, Diane Baynes, Pamela Benner, Shawhin Beroukhim, Shirin Beroukhim, Dani Blieden, Gidon Bonner, Sarah Bonner, Kimberly Chomyn, Miriam Ciner, Kiefer Cohen, Jamie Cortez, Kathryn Courson, Samantha Cymerint, Brigitta Cymerint, Erin Dascanio, Natalie De Jong, Sharon Don, Simon Drakeford, Jared Dror, Edwin Eshaghzadeh, Catherine Eshaghzadeh, Amit Fadida, Roxanne Favis, Natalie Field, Danielle Frostig, Miriam Geisinsky, Stephan Gilbert, Alicia Ginsberg, Spencer Glasky, Ben Glasser, Becky Golden, Zachary Goldstein, Aria Goldstein, Tammy Goldstein, Shaina Gollub, Mackenzie Rose Griffin, Marc Gulaya, Hanna Hart, Jaden Heinecke, Esther Helfand, Robbie Helfman, Max Helman, Sarah Horn, Kate Hughes, Eitan Jaffe, Alyssa Jordan, Cassey Jordan, Libby Jubas, Ally Kaufman, Breanna Kelley, Lauren Kerrins, Sophie Kijel, Jocelyn Koff, Elan Kramer, Jo Ann Krupp, Coach Kyle, Alexandra Lee, Robben Levine, Erica Lewis, Max Lilien, Claudia Maidenberg, Sarah Maissy, Erica Maissy, Greg Maler, Neal Maler, Steven Maler, Morgan Mcvey, Elias Medici, Isaac Mintz, Mendel Mintz, Sruli Mintz, Shayna Morrison, Jenna Norban, Brendon Nye, Taryn Palitz, Elle Penn, Ilan Penn, Spencer Reitman, Sarah Rewers, Rachel Schneider, Dana Schwartzberg, Madison Seely, Garett Segall, Devon Segall, Ben Shaoulian, Eyal Shaoulian, Sharon Shaoulian, Sarina Shohet, Joseph Shuirman, Kaitlyn Siegel, Audrey Silverman, Sam Silverman, Brooke Simon, Dina Simon, Maya Simon, Rebecca Simon, Tamra Smalewitz, Rachelle Speckler, Leah Spitz, Sarah Stern, Emily Swanson, Thalie Timsit, Ethan Wien, Seth Winkler, Felicia Wiseman, Elana Wolpa, LeeEl Yehezkel, Sapeer Yehezkel, Zachary Zeleznick and Jacqueline Zweig.
For more information on the Friendship Circle, contact FriendshipCircleOC.org or (949) 721-9800 or visit 2865 East Coast Highway, Suite 340, Corona Del Mar.