By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – When Barbara and Bob Dell of West Hartford received a diagnosis of the neurological disorder Angelman Syndrome for their son Gabe, she says they “felt all these doors close. Many of our dreams and hopes for our child had been dashed.”
When Gabe joined the Friendship Circle of Greater Hartford, the Chabad organization that pairs teen volunteers and children and teens with special needs for Judaic, social and cultural activities, the Dells’ outlook changed.
“Through our involvement with Friendship Circle, slowly, new doors began to open,” Barbara Dell said. “Connections were made with teens, fellow moms and lots of families that learn from and support each other. We began to feel a part of a warm, inclusive community.”
Which was exactly what Rabbi Shaya and Shayna Gopin were aiming for when 10 years ago they founded Friendship Circle of Greater Hartford, a program of Chabad of Greater Hartford.
“For a child who is living with a disability, the whole social piece can be very challenging,” Shayna Gopin said. “But the doors to friendship and to being able to access our Jewish heritage should not close.”
On Sunday, May 6, the community will come together to help the Friendship Circle of Greater Hartford celebrate its 10th anniversary from 2 – 4 p.m. at the Emanuel Synagogue, 160 Mohegan Drive.
At the celebration, current members and alumni will talk about the work the Friendship Circle does and the impact it has had on them and the community, and graduating senior volunteers and families who have been involved with the program will be honored. There will also be an interactive break-dancing show, carnival food and activities for kids at the event, which is open to the public.
The Friendship Circle is a national program founded in 1994 by Bassie and Levi Shemtov in West Bloomfield, Mich. There are now 80 Friendship Circle groups around the world.
Rabbi Shaya and Shayna Gopin founded Friendship Circle of Greater Hartford in 2008.
“Two typical teens and one child on the spectrum began to get together on Sundays, and that’s how we started,” Shayna Gopin says. “We’ve grown to a total of 100 members, including everybody – children, teens and young adults with and without disabilities.”
“We provide social and Judaic programming, but the heart of the program is the Friends at Home program where pairs of teen volunteers go and hang out with children and teens in our community,” Gopin says.
Friends at Home volunteers visit their Friendship Circle friends weekly to play games, do crafts, read, talk, or go out to participate in other fun activities in the community.
“From there we have Jewish holiday celebrations, Jewish Hebrew school enrichment, skill-based clubs like fitness, art and cooking. The entire time they are socializing and opportunities for friendships are made,” Gopin says. “That’s really what it’s all about.”
The Friendship Circle couldn’t exist, she says, without the dedicated teenage volunteers from local high schools who give freely of their time and support.
Friendship Circle President Amber Raisner of West Hartford, a senior at Hall High School, volunteered to be a part of Friendship’s Cooking Circle when she was in the 8th grade. She has made several friends through the program, but her main good friend is Cameron. Besides cooking together, she and Cameron have also enjoyed playing basketball together at Fitness Circle.
“I have learned that each person has something they can offer and something that you can learn from them,” Raisner explains. “I also learned to look for the many abilities in other people and to not see their disability. Friendship Circle has connected me with so many new people that I might not have met without it and I am so grateful to have been a part of it.”
Lisa Berman became involved in Friendship Circle when her son Max became a teen volunteer three years ago.
“It has totally opened his eyes about the acceptance of everybody,” she says. “Where before if someone [on the spectrum] was maybe screaming out loud or interrupting a show, he might have lost his patience or become frustrated. But now he just gets up and goes over and says ‘Hi’ and it is remarkable to see how he just steps up to the plate and can connect to kids with disabilities and want to help and encourage them.”
Berman, who often volunteers herself at various Friendship Circle activities or holiday celebrations, is one of the chairs of the 10th anniversary event.
Besides just celebrating, she said they hope that it is an “eye-opener” for the community.
“It has been here for ten years and I still talk to people all the time who ask, ‘What is that Friendship Circle sticker on your car?’ So some people just don’t know about it,” Berman says. “This is another way to introduce it. It melts your heart to bring together two worlds as one, where children without disabilities can look at children with disabilities as no different. It’s a learning experience for both. We want to enlighten the public to see how heartwarming it is.”
For more information about the Friendship Circle’s 10th anniversary celebration or to RSVP, call (860) 833-4035, email info@FriendshipCircleCT.com or visit FriendshipCircleCT.com/Celebrate.
CAP: Friendship Circle president Amber Raisner (left) and member Erica Propis look on as Rabbi Shaya Gopin conducts a Havdalah service at a group event.