May 18, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
May 18, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Friendship Circle’s Friends@Home Program Pairs Teens With Children With Special Needs

Quality time with children with special needs is also a life-changer for Bergen County parents and siblings.

Paramus—Seven years ago, Shirley Bitton had a lot going on. With a 3-year-old son with autism, it was challenging to meet his needs while caring for the rest of her growing family. A friend suggested she call Friendship Circle of Bergen County about its Friends@Home program. That call was life-changing.

“Friends@Home isn’t just a benefit for Raphael,” said Bitton, referring to her now-10-year-old son. “It’s for every member of our family, on so many levels.”

Friends@Home brings teenage volunteers together with children with special needs for quality time in the environment the kids are most comfortable and familiar with: their own homes. “It’s a beautiful way for teens to truly give back and make a real difference,” said Zeesy Grossbaum, executive director of the Friendship Circle of Bergen County. “They give just an hour or two a week, and everyone gets so much in return.”

Working in pairs, the teens make weekly home visits to keep the child happily occupied and safe while the parents get some much-needed respite time. Activities center on what the child likes to do, whether it’s playing outside, building Legos, reading, doing arts and crafts, or playing board games. Meanwhile, the parents, who are required to be home during these visits, get a chance to be “off duty” for a while.

Grossbaum said the program teaches young volunteers the skills of giving and responsibility, and cultivates compassion while forging a unique bond with their friends. “Parents speak glowingly of how their child looks forward to these visits,” she said. “Some children sit at the window in anticipation.” Raphael lights up when his friends come to the door, as do his siblings, who also look forward to the volunteers’ visits. He gets two visits a week from two pairs of teenage boys.

Keeping Raphael entertained is just the beginning. “The teens model positive behaviors through their interactions,” said Bitton. “For instance, when they played the card game UNO, Raphael learned about taking turns, winning and losing, and controlling his emotions. They even play with my other kids and help them with homework, which is really nice.”

Moreover, she added, Raphael’s 11-year-old brother has developed more compassion and understanding about Raphael’s challenges. “He’s watched the ‘cool kids’ playing and communicating with his brother for seven years. Now he helps them out, and was even inspired to volunteer at the Friendship Circle’s End-of-Summer Camp.”

Volunteers benefit from Friends@Home as well. They form friendships, get to know children who are differently-abled, and meet other teenagers who are committed and caring. They gain the self-esteem that comes from knowing they are making a difference in the life of a child. It is satisfying and rewarding, and it’s fun—so much so that many volunteers extend themselves to participate in other volunteer opportunities through Friendship Circle.

Jonathan Sarasohn, a volunteer from Teaneck, has been participating in Friends@Home for the past two years and noted the tremendous personal satisfaction he gets out of it. “The child I visit is always happy to see me, and so is his family.” The ninth grader also does Teen Scene at the Frisch School on Wednesday nights and helps in the Friendship Circle Hebrew School on Sunday.

Bitton noted that the volunteers’ families are also important partners in Friends@Home. “We’re so very grateful to the parents,” she said. “They drive their kids to our homes in spite of everyone’s hectic after-school schedules or the weather. That’s a big commitment on their side and we really appreciate it.”

For Raphael, Friends@Home is just one of the activities he enjoys through the Friendship Circle of Bergen County. He also participates in the summer and winter-break camps and the Hebrew school, which meets on Sundays at Yeshiva of North Jersey. “It’s such a relief to have programs you can be so comfortable with,” said Bitton.

Replied Grossbaum, “And that’s exactly why we do what we do.”

Teens in 7th grade and up can volunteer with Friends@Home. The visits are based on the specific needs of each family and arranged to accommodate a wide variety of schedules. To register a child with special needs, become a volunteer or learn more about Friendship Circle of Bergen County, visit www.BCFriendship.com.

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles