Samantha Holzer and Mike Lobel first met at Emma Kaufmann Camp several years ago when Holzer was in third grade. But their friendship did not take off until a few years later when they connected through the Friendship Circle, an organization launched in Pittsburgh 10 years ago whose mission is to facilitate social interactions between children with special needs and teenage volunteers.
Now, Holzer, a senior at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, and Lobel, 27, talk to each other a couple times a day on the phone and on FaceTime, and get together a few times a month for Friendship Circle events, or to just go to dinner or see a musical.
The friendship with Lobel means a lot to Holzer.
“Having different relationships has taught me to be more accepting of people,” she said. “I’ve learned that having a disability doesn’t define you as a person. We both know we are special to each other, and that’s what makes it worthwhile.”
Likewise, Lobel values the time he spends with Holzer.
“She’s a very nice friend,” he said, adding that the two enjoy singing together, especially “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” from the musical “Hairspray.”
“Samantha is my best friend,” Lobel added. “I like it when she is always there for me at Friendship Circle.”
Friendship Circle, the local branch of a Chabad-Lubavitch organization that runs similar programs across North America, will be celebrating “10 Years of Friendship & Growing” on Sunday, May 15 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Stage AE at 400 N. Shore Drive. The evening will include a strolling dinner, silent auction and senior recognition.
“Our theme is ‘growing home,’” said Rivkee Rudolph, director of Pittsburgh’s Friendship Circle. “It’s all about growth on all different levels: our physical space, our growth in reach, personal growth, and our growth in numbers.”
“Growing home,” she said, alludes to the organization’s new space on Murray Avenue in the building that formerly was the site of Gullifty’s restaurant. The $4 million project, which is almost complete, provides 9,000 square feet of indoor space as well as 2,000 square feet of usable rooftop space. In addition to housing the organization’s offices and ongoing programs, the space will offer new opportunities for participants to interact with and provide services for Squirrel Hill neighbors.
While Friendship Circle staff already moved into the new space, it is not completely furnished and has not been officially opened, Rudolph said. A grand opening will be held in late summer, planned by a group of teens.
“It’s important for all our members to feel like it’s their space, and that they are the hosts,” Rudolph said.
The growth of the organization has been significant in the last decade. Friendship Circle began its first year with 20 volunteers; there are 300 now, including 47 graduating seniors. The organization serves about 150 families with special needs children.
Friendship Circle’s programming is also expanding, focusing on creating new “age-appropriate and meaningful” opportunities for those members who are over the age of 16, Rudolph said.
That programming includes Friends on the Town, which offers such events as dinners out and a theater club in which the teens attend dress rehearsals of plays downtown. A community service track is also now offered, Rudolph noted, where friends and members join together regularly for volunteer projects.
Friendship Circle additionally is working on expanding its programming to include younger children than it has in the past, Rudolph said.
The “growing” theme of the May 15 event likewise is a nod to the Friendship Circle volunteers who are graduating, many of which will be leaving Pittsburgh to attend universities in other cities. Rudolph hopes those teens will be able to apply the experiences they had while in Friendship Circle to new experiences they will have in the future, and to continue to grow from those experiences.
Holzer, who will be heading to Ohio University next fall, and Lobel are both confident that the friendship they fostered through Friendship Circle will remain strong.
“I think our friendship is going to last forever,” Holzer said.
“Yes it will,” said Lobel.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.