Friendship Circle Draws Volunteers who Help Kids with Special Needs

July 5, 2007

Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois sponsors The Friendship Circle program to bring playmates into the lives of special needs children to provide them with social and Judaic experiences they can not otherwise easily obtain.

The Friendship Circle offers each of about 60 special needs children a face-to-face personal playmate who volunteers to be with them each week. The program started 14 years ago in Detroit and came to the Chicago area 10 months ago when Rabbi Zelik Moscowitz came to Northbrook to build the program. Parents of special needs children can connect with the program on-line at or by calling Moscowitz at (847) 833-6843. Munzer.gif

Edgewood middle School student David Munzer stands with his Friendship Circle buddy, Billy Steinberg, while holding an award he received for his good work. Munzer helped pioneer The Friendship Circle locally.

"The response has been great," said Moscowitz. "We help anyone who is in need of a friend. The response has been very good for the children, the parents and the volunteers involved. This is something the children never experience or do not experience often."

Edgewood Middle School student David Munzer of Highland Park is one of the youngest volunteers in the program.

Two special needs children at Camp Menominee, Eagle River, Wis., expressed feelings about Munzer's presence in their cabin last summer: "It was great having him in our cabin the entire summer. He was always the one to write and act in our cabin skits and made everyone laugh with his jokes and stories. We look forward to seeing him again in 2007."

Moscowitz said aside from Edgewood, students from Glenbrook North, Deerfield and Highland Park high schools, Lubavitch Girls High School, Lubavitch Mesivta, Ida Crown Jewish Academy and Cheder Lubavitch participate.

"They do it purely to help, for the sake of doing good," Moscowitz said. "I often marvel at their dedication and enthusiasm for this program."

Brenda A. Clarke, a mother with two special needs children functioning at a high level with their autism, described the program as a "wonderful service."

"It's been extremely, extremely special," she said. "The thing that's fantastic about it is that the high school volunteers have huge hearts and act as mentors. They give unconditional respect and kindness. It's difficult to find kids you can trust."

The impact for the special needs children is matched by the program's impact on young adult volunteers. That is one of the secondary positives about the program, Moscowitz said, based on what parents of volunteers say. Parents tell him their own child's character values have been reinforced and strengthened by the experience of the friendship.

Special needs children in The Friendship Circle program not only gain a friend for playdates, but they gain help with meeting other people and the community at large. In addition, their parents can find themselves with 60 to 90 minutes to relax and attend to their own concerns.

Parent Clarke said the experience for her children offers an opportunity to do fun things which give them confidence and friendship with someone who is not a family member. The activities offer a lot of emotional and physical activity from the playing and participating in sports and hobbies. Her children, she said, can use the computer for play with the volunteers, obtain help with their homework, learn manners, learn to ride bicycles or engage in sports. It is everyday childhood activity. Her children love the visits and want to know when the next one will occur.

The program is located in 30 centers of the Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois. On the North Shore, centers are located in Highland Park, Northbrook, Skokie and Evanston. It is also located in many private homes with special needs children.

Eligibility for a friend is self-defining for parents. They need not submit forms with their child's diagnosis.

"We help anyone who is in need of a friend," said Zelik Moscowitz. "One of the biggest challenges for children with special needs is their social life. This is one of the greatest challenges in their personal life. There is a great need for it."