“The next number one health epidemic in our society,” says Rabbi Mendel Groner, Director of Friendship Circle, “is going to be loneliness. We’re so focused on our education and our careers that friendship falls off to the side. As a result, people are lonelier than ever. Even though we’re focused on young people with special needs, our mission is to combat the next number one health epidemic in our society, loneliness.”
Friendship Circle began in 1994 when Bassie and Levi Shemtov in Michigan, working with individuals struggling with addiction, noticed that families with children with special needs were underserved.
“The children with special needs lacked friends,” Rabbi Groner says, “and there were teenagers in the community who were looking to do something positive in their spare time. So they started pairing them up. We would say, ‘This child has special needs. He or she is a little bit lonely. Why don’t you visit them on a weekly basis, and develop a friendship'”
From that initial concept, Friendship Circle has now spread across the world, with 81 chapters worldwide.
“The experience benefits the teenager as much as it does the child with special needs,” Rabbi Groner notes. “All the literature today points to how lonely teens are. That loneliness is enhanced by technology and social media. By connecting with a child with special needs, our teens develop their ability to make friends. They transcend their own loneliness, while at the same time, they’re serving the greater good.”
Rabbi Groner notes that Friendship Circle philosophy is rooted in the overall belief that every human being, including those with special needs or disabilities, was created for a unique reason and purpose, and that every human being has something to add to the world.
“The difficulty,” Rabbi Groner says,” is that sometimes individuals with special needs have trouble reaching their potential. They may have a different norm from the typical person in society. They may have trouble engaging with society. When they develop a friendship with a teenager, it allows them to open up about themselves, to feel more confident, to try new things, and break out of their comfort zone.
“This allows the children with special needs to reach their potential. We are not here to say what their actual potential is, but we see enormous growth through friendship, and not just through therapy and medical intervention, as important as those things are. Growth through friendship is amazing.
“Friendship is not just a nice thing that makes me feel better and puts a smile on somebody else’s face,” Rabbi Groner says. “Friendship actually allows you to make positive changes in your life and reach your potential.”
Rabbi Groner tells one story that encapsulates the meaning of Friendship Circle. A teen from Charlotte, North Carolina struggled with social engagement. She did not feel comfortable in the highly social environment at school, and switched to an online school program where she spent much of the day at home. She had dreams of going to college, like her siblings, and having a productive future, but her severe anxiety made it seem impossible. Though very talented, it looked as though after high school she’d stay home, and the prospect of living on her own seemed unlikely.
“The local Friendship Circle introduced her to a teen friend,” Rabbi Groner recalls, “and the two teens developed a friendship through home visits and group activities. Because of this friendship, her confidence grew and she was able to cope with her anxiety. She began to engage more with life. After several years, she was nominated to join the teen board of Friendship Circle, and together with her friend, they applied to colleges. She was accepted to Guilford College with a full scholarship, not out of pity but based on her own merit. She now attends college at Greensboro, North Carolina, and all because of a friend.”
Friendship Circle runs fundraising events including the Miami Marathon, The New York City Marathon, The New York Half Marathon, and a two day bike trip from Miami to Key West over President’s Day weekend. The group also offers a six-week cross-country bike ride from California to New York, as well as a Grand Canyon camping and hiking experience in the spring.
“Our teen friends think that they’re serving children with special needs,” Rabbi Groner says. “The reality is that the teens have needs as well. That’s why we call it Friendship Circle—because friendship is never one way.”