Lori Solomon of North Caldwell was thrilled to drop off her three children at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany on Saturday night and head out for a nice dinner with her husband.
While she and her husband, Jerry, enjoyed a “date night” on Dec. 18, teen volunteers and their families kept company with their 17-year-old disabled daughter and her twin seven-year-old siblings, both typical youngsters.
“One of the best parts was that typical kids got to share a special evening with their special siblings,” Lori said.
The program, which attracted 55 families and a total of 120 children, was the newest initiative of the Friendship Circle, a volunteer respite program for families with children who have special needs. A project of Chabad Lubavitch, it began in Michigan in 1994 and was launched locally in 2000.
Parents got a rare night out as they dropped off their children for three hours of swimming, gym activities, a magic show, and arts and crafts. “I was looking at the smiles on all the parents’ faces: ‘Look at us, going out,’” said Lori. “It was amazing.”
The Solomons’ daughter has multiple physical disabilities, including Dandy-Walker Syndrome, a congenital brain malformation that has left her in a wheelchair.
Most people in the Solomon family’s situation “can’t just hire a teenager and go out. You have to have a properly trained adult” to care for the special-needs child, Lori said. “We know a lot of parents out there who don’t go out on a date because they can’t. As we all know, date night is very important.”
The Solomons have been active with the Friendship Circle for years and were honored by the organization at its 2009 gala. The “date night” event was modeled on a similar project at a local church that caught Lori Solomon’s eye.
“I thought if anyone in the Jewish community could replicate it and do it right, it was the Friendship Circle,” she said.
The event broke new ground for Friendship Circle in other ways. Instead of inviting just its usual teen volunteers, Friendship Circle executive director Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum encouraged the volunteers’ entire families to come to Whippany together.
Ashera and Jeffrey Haar of Livingston have four children, ages nine through 23. The oldest, Rachel, has been volunteering with the Friendship Circle for a decade; Israel, 19, and Gabby, 16, have also volunteered. While they have spoken of the experience often, their parents have never seen them in action.
On Saturday night, the whole family came together, including the youngest, nine-year-old Nathaniel.
“It was a really an amazing experience to do this together,” said Ashera, who worked in the arts and crafts area.
Her husband, who spent the evening interacting with a disabled child, acknowledged feeling anxious at first. “I wasn’t really sure how I was going to react to something my kids do almost weekly,” he said. “I never had a close experience with a special-needs child over an extended period of time.”
But the youngster he worked with quickly charmed him, he said, and they spent time playing together in the pool.
“It gave me a chance to practice what I preach,” Jeffrey said. “I always tell my kids they have to give back. Here was my chance.” Both he and his wife said they were thrilled to see their own children in action, in addition to joining in.
Like all Friendship Circle programs, the goal was to give children and families with special needs the same opportunities everyone else has.
“Many of us take for granted the ability to go out on Saturday night,” said Grossbaum. “This was an opportunity to give them some respite and some normalcy in their lives. The look on their faces as they left — so excited — and then when they came back — relaxed and rejuvenated — it was really very meaningful.”
Parents also received goody bags when they arrived that included coupons for nearby restaurants and coffee houses, as well as popcorn.
Grossbaum said the Saturday night program will become a regular Friendship Circle activity.