The director of the Friendship Circle of Mercer County said he does not want to “compete” with other organizations for individuals with special needs. Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Wilhelm said the program, affiliated with the Chabad of Greater Mercer County in Princeton, has found its niche by creating programming and activities for children and adults who can’t find what they need elsewhere.
The flagship program of the Friendship Circle — which has branches throughout New Jersey, in some seven communities — pairs teen volunteers with children with special needs, who spend 90 minutes each week playing sports, baking cookies, making crafts, or just hanging out together, providing parents with a needed respite. Among its other activities are holiday programs, music sessions, and a birthday club.
Wilhelm said Mercer’s Friendship Circle, which he runs with his wife, Mushky, who serves as program coordinator, tries “to fill a void. We try to help every person with a specific need that’s not being met elsewhere.”
For example, the mother of a special-needs girl approached the couple with a request to have her daughter interact with other children. In response, they created the “mini-chefs” program through which special-needs girls and others learn kosher cooking. The group just had the first of what will be monthly gatherings.
The involvement of all types of youngsters “allows other children to gain an appreciation of special-needs children,” said Rabbi Wilhelm.
The circle is now developing a “Jewish movie night” for those 20 years and over in response to a young adult who had trouble socializing with peers. “When you’re in a movie, each person is really doing their own thing and socializing — but not socializing,” said Wilhelm.
Mindy Heifler of West Windsor said her 12-year-old developmentally challenged son, Steven, “needs someone who has patience. The Friendship Circle provides him with various activities…where Steven can play and interact with other children. He recently went to a bowling party although he had never been bowling before. He also participates in activities, like making food, that open up new worlds to him and challenge him to push himself.”
The Mercer Friendship Circle, which began eight months ago, is looking for teens 13 and up to be assigned in pairs to its program. Those interested in volunteering should call the Wilhelms at 609-683-7240 or go to mercerfriends.com.