“Friendship is Priceless,” the theme of this year’s annual Friendship Circle fundraiser dinner, pretty much sums up the experience of a participant in Friendship Circle.
Just ask Stacey Diaz, the mother of Amanda, a high school senior with special needs who has participated in the group since moving to Pittsburgh in 2007.
“Friendship Circle has fulfilled her life,” Diaz said. “It’s given her a social life. It has enabled her to have birthday parties with lots of people who care about her. It makes me cry to think about it. It’s really been a blessing from above. It was a match made in heaven for her.”
Friendship Circle, the organization that facilitates social interactions between children with special needs and teenage volunteers, will host its fifth annual fundraiser, Sunday, April 28, at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown. Attendance is expected to exceed 500, an impressive number for an organization that started in Pittsburgh just seven years ago, with only 12 special needs kids, and about 25 volunteers.
Friendship Circle has experienced rapid growth over the years, and now boasts more than 240 teen volunteers enjoying friendships with about 125 special needs kids.
Programming has increased as well.
“We have over 100 events over the school year,” said Rabbi Mordy Rudolph, who founded the Pittsburgh chapter of this global organization with his wife Rivkee. “We started with the ‘Friends at Home’ program, which is at-home visits, and after about a year, we started weekly programs. We now have at least two or three a week.”
Those programs include things such as bowling leagues, arts clubs, cooking clubs, girls’ dance clubs, sports clubs, and special outings like apple picking and ice skating.
Most of the programs are held in Squirrel Hill and the South Hills, but the organization is beginning to expand into other communities such as the North Hills, Sewickley and Monroeville, Rudolph said.
“Our goal is to make the community more inclusive and accommodating,” he said. “And our second goal is to create real friendships for these kids.”
“There’s been a lot of discussion about how to include people in Friendship Circle’s mission,” Rudolph continued, “and we are now working on ways to include other populations, such as pairing young, typical kids to families with kids with special needs.”
Friendship Circle differs from other special needs groups, according to Rudolph, in that it works to “blur the lines between volunteers and friends, so it’s not really clear who belongs to what category.”
Blurring those lines, Diaz said, has worked well for her daughter, Amanda.
“That clever thing Rivkee does, where you don’t know who is in what category, is great,” Diaz said. “And Friendship Circle has even given Amanda some leadership roles that she likes, and seems to be good at.”
Friendship Circle does not charge a fee for any of its programming, which makes fundraising crucial to the organization’s success, said Amy Weiss, who is co-chairing the event along with Ina Gumberg.
And it is not only friendship, but also the organization itself that has become priceless to our community, Weiss added.
“After seeing Friendship Circle in action, you see how friendship is priceless in many ways,” she said. “Friendship is a win-win, it’s priceless for everyone. At Friendship Circle, everyone takes away valuable lessons and makes new friends. And the whole community stands to gain from it.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)