Lori Solomon’s 18-year-old daughter Hannah has multiple handicaps due to Dandy-Walker Syndrome, a congenital brain malformation. Lori also has nine-year-old twins, Jacob and Lily, who do not have special needs.
When she heard that the Livingston-based Friendship Circle would be holding a three-day camp for siblings of special-needs kids, she knew it was right for them.
“Hannah loves attending the Friendship Circle programs,” Solomon said, “and Jacob and Lily are always very excited when they get invited to tag along. When I told them about a camp especially for them, they were just thrilled.”
On Aug. 22, 27 siblings joined 74 youngsters with disabilities and enjoyed a day at Bowcraft amusement park in Scotch Plains, a highlight of their “mini-camp.”
Friendship Circle — a project of the Lubavitch Rabbinical College of America and a beneficiary of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ — recruits and trains hundreds of teen volunteers to visit with and help children with disabilities and their families.
For the past 10 years, it has offered those children the week-long Allie’s Camp in memory of one of its beloved clients, eight-year-old Allie Rosenfield, who died in 2006.
This year, Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, who runs the Friendship Circle together with his wife, Toba, made the decision to create the new camp for brothers and sisters of the special-needs kids.
“We do invite the siblings to join the other kids now and then,” he said. “But this time we wanted to give them a chance to enjoy themselves, and also to meet and talk with other kids in the same situation, people who can understand what they deal with every day.”
‘Seeing the joy’
The Grossbaums recruit hundreds of volunteers to help with the special-needs kids; they had extra help bringing in the cadre of volunteers needed for the siblings camp, Andrea Russin and her son, Alec, 13, who chose to raise funds and help recruit volunteers for the mini-camp as part of his bar mitzva social action project.
Russin lost her husband Steve in the 9/11 terror attack, when Alec was just two. She gave birth to twin daughters, Olivia and Ariella, four days later. Grossbaum heard about her situation and stepped in with support; teenage volunteers were sent to help her and play with her children, until she moved away from the area six years later.
“When it came to deciding on a mitzva project for Alec’s bar mitzva later this year, we talked about the Friendship Circle volunteers,” Russin said. “He remembered the volunteers very well, and he really liked the idea of doing something to support their work.”
At Bowcraft, in the middle of helping one of the young siblings, Alec paused briefly to acknowledge his pleasure in making the day special for the participating youngsters. “I’m glad I did it,” he said.
Another volunteer at Bowcraft was 23-year-old Elana Seid, formerly of Randolph and also the sibling of a child with special needs. She was one of the twosome who came to help the Russins at the start and continued until she left for college. She went on to study speech pathology and is now working toward her master’s at Teachers College of Columbia University.
“The experience with Friendship Circle definitely helped make me decide to work with children,” she said, and added jokingly, “I saw all the fun the kids had and I wanted to have that fun too.”
Sarah Volfman came along to Bowcraft as a volunteer to help her brother Joe, who has cerebral palsy. The 16-year-old from Springfield has helped care for her younger brother much of his life, and for the past three years has volunteered with the Friendship Circle. At the amusement park, she helped Joe go on the Galleon Pirate Ship and the Drop Zone and other rides, with their mother Elizabeth joining in, handing out bottles of cold water to the hot, grinning kids.
“Isn’t the atmosphere amazing?” Grossbaum asked. His nine children were there too. “I love it that they are growing up among these children, comfortable and familiar with people with disabilities,” he said.
His wife was asked if she wasn’t exhausted, from the heat and the crowds and the responsibility. “Not at all,” she said. “Seeing the joy on the kids’ faces keeps me energized.”