About 10 years ago, when Sam Goto of Manalapan was 11, he became involved with Friendship Circle of Central Jersey, an organization sponsored locally by Chabad of Western Monmouth County that recruits teen volunteers who build relationships and friendships with children with special needs.
Now, a decade later, Sam is no longer officially receiving help from FC, which provides a host of services for the children and their families; instead, he is giving back as one of the organization’s “most responsible, mature, kind, and caring volunteers,” said program director Chanale Wolosow.
On Sunday, May 22, at the Vonage Corporate Center in Holmdel, Sam will be spotlighted as one of FC’s impressive success stories at the eighth annual Walk4Friends fund-raising event. A record number of 1,500 guests and participants is expected; about 1,300 turned out last year for the walk, which raised $156,587; this year’s goal is $175,000.
From birth, Sam suffered from Koolen-de Vries syndrome, a disorder characterized by developmental delays and mild to moderate intellectual disabilities.
He was a “lonely, isolated young boy with virtually no friends,” said his mother, Stacy Goto. On the plus side, he was “happy-go-lucky and easygoing, always with a smile on his face,” said Goto, a Manalapan resident with two older children.
Sam was enrolled in FC’s Friends at Home program. Every week, two teen volunteers would come to the Goto home for an hour, hang out with Sam, sing, dance, try out soccer skills, and, by example, show him how to build friendships.
Within a couple of months, the youth joined FC’s Sunday Circle, which at the time was held at the WMC Chabad in Manalapan (today, participation is too large for that venue, and it takes place at Robertsville Elementary School in Marlboro).
When Sam became too old to be a “special friend” in the program, he segued to FC’s Young Adult Division, which meets Sunday evenings.
But, his mom said, “Sam told me he missed the afternoon activity, so we encouraged him to approach Chanale about becoming a volunteer.”
“Sam’s transformation from participant to volunteer is only one aspect of how FC transforms lives,” said Wolosow. “Just as important are the life-changing goals, aspirations, and career paths FC has inspired through its programs. A large number of volunteers have made career choices based on their experience with Friendship Circle, from social worker to occupational therapist.”
In Sam’s case, she said, “It’s absolutely beautiful to see how he has progressed from a boy who was benefitting from our programs to now, at 21, where he’s completely on the other side of the ‘circle’ — ably and eagerly giving back.
“Every Sunday you can find Sam at Friendship Circle, greeting his special friend, Lucas, to whom he is extremely dedicated. They connect in a very special way.”
Lucas, nine, has a rare chromosomal disorder and is nonverbal, said his mother, Yelena Gerts, in a phone interview with NJJN.
“While he is very friendly with all the volunteers, he and Sam have a special one-on-one bond. Theirs is a real friendship,” she said.
Sam and Lucas have been paired for more than two years. “When we first became buddies, Lucas was nervous and I had to help calm him down. I walked around the room with him and sang to him,” said Sam.
Today, however, the two are always eager to begin their sessions together. “He is very happy to see me, and I am happy to see him,” Sam said.