The fledgling Friendship Circle of Union County is growing slowly but surely. Its Friends at Home program, funded with a grant six months ago from the Jewish Community Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, has connected five families with special-needs children with 12 teen volunteers who play and socialize with the children in their homes.
Rabbi Avrohom Blesofsky, the leader of the Fanwood-based Chabad of Union County, and his wife, Malky, its educational director, are running the program; they said they are ready and eager to include more families and more volunteers.
“Once we have the right match between teens and the kids, we become an afterthought,” Malky told NJ Jewish News. “The volunteers form such bonds with the kids, they really love being with them.”
Bonds form too among families in the program, the volunteers themselves, and with others in Friendship Circle programs across the country.
The Blesofskys are working under the auspices of the Chabad of Greater Somerset County. Its leader, Rabbi Mendy Herson, approached them last year with the request that they expand on the endeavor Rabbi Blesofsky initiated three years ago with just a couple of families and teens.
Herson, who is executive director of the Chabad Jewish Center of Basking Ridge and leader of Chabad operations in Somerset, Hunterdon, and Union counties, said congregants asked him to provide that kind of help for area families.
He told NJ Jewish News, “I was really unaware of just how many people in the community were dealing with this kind of challenge. But as soon as the idea was floated, I heard about more and more of them. It was a latent need that we hadn’t recognized.”
The Blesofskys’ program is a local version of an international program established in 1994 and run by Chabad-Lubavitch communities in hundreds of locations. It works with teens from eighth grade through high school. The teens are given a few sessions of training, and then have ongoing monitoring and support. Working usually in pairs, they visit generally once a week for a couple of hours, to play and socialize with the particular child and to give the parents a much-needed break.
As Rabbi Blesofsky pointed out, the program has a dual purpose — to help families often facing enormous challenges, but also to give the teenagers a chance to serve others in a way that broadens their outlook and deepens their sensitivity.
Herson and the Blesofskys applied for and won a grant from the foundation. It was for $25,000 for the first year, with a second year conditional on the fulfillment of their goals.
The five families enrolled so far, each with one child in the program, live in Summit, Fanwood, Warren, and Berkeley Heights.
The Blesofskys said that finding willing teen volunteers has proved fairly easy. “Anyone can do this. The teens have no hang-ups about working with these children,” Malky told NJJN. “They make real friends with the kids, and they really want to spend time with them.”
Reliability is essential, but it hasn’t been a problem, they said. “It’s very important that these families not be subjected to any more stress than they are already handling,” Malky said, “but so long as the volunteers call if they need to make a change, and let me know how things are going, it works fine.”
The teens come from various congregations and backgrounds, but they have connected with one another to share experiences and ideas for activities. The rabbi said they also have invited one another to attend other Jewish programs they’re associated with, like the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth. “So it’s also expanding their Jewish involvement,” he said.
The Blesofskys themselves connect with other Chabad leaders running such programs, and for the past few years they have attended the annual two-day conference on all different aspects of Friendship Circle. Those gatherings, they told NJJN, have been extraordinary — in terms of networking and personal learning.
“Everyone gains from this program,” the rebbetzin said.
Jessica Mehlman, the federation’s assistant director of financial resource development, said, “The foundation chose to fund Friendship Circle as part of our ongoing efforts to help increase programs for children with special needs in our community.”
She pointed out that the foundation was the first organization to fund the special-needs shadow program run by the JCC of Central NJ’s Camp Yachad and provides ongoing support for it through the Bob Rubin Memorial Fund. Last year, it also provided funding through its outreach and engagement grants for the Mayan program for special-needs children run by Temple Emanu-El, the Reform congregation in Westfield.
“The Friendship Circle is a nationally renowned program that we very much wanted to see brought to our community,” she said.
“The foundation and federation are very pleased with its progress in its first six months, and we look forward to greater successes in the future.”