Local programs bring together children with – and without – special needs
By Ronna Mandel
“You’ve got a friend in me,” goes the theme to Disney’s Toy Story films, all of which feature the special bond between a boy named Andy and his toys. Childhood friends, real and animated, are an important part of growing up. For children with special needs, however, making friends can be a challenge. There’s no magic spell or smartphone app to help, but creating an environment that nurtures relationships between children with special needs and their typically developing and non-disabled peers can make a big difference. That’s the mission of these four organizations offering friendship-building programs – and, often, life-changing experiences.
Vista Inspired Teens
The Vista Inspired Teens program at Vista Del Mar is open to anyone ages 13-19 with special needs, and meets monthly at the home of Parent Advisor Susan Corwin.
She recommends that interested teens and their parents or guardians attend a meeting before applying, to decide whether the program is a good fit. “Most of the Vista Inspired Teens are in this program because they love being ambassadors for Vista Del Mar, and raising awareness and funds for our students and families with autism,” says Corwin. Two former Inspired Teens are now Vista Inspired Mentors, helping out those who are new to the group.
Vista Inspired Teens do more than attend monthly meetings. They form significant friendships while coordinating fundraising luncheons and special events. Participants see themselves as one group working to make a difference in the lives of teens of all abilities. “I have personally witnessed how one teen came out to the group and announced that he was gay. Another teen shared his recent diagnosis, and another that her parents were getting a divorce,” says Corwin, adding that the group is designed to be fully inclusive and “a safe place where teens are free to express themselves and work toward a common fundraising goal.”
Inspired Teens has no membership fees or dues. The only requirement is that Vista Inspired Teens agree to treat each other with respect and kindness. Corwin emphasizes that every teenager who walks through her door is considered a unique and valuable individual that she’d like to get to know. “It’s an attitude we cultivate at the Vista Inspired Teens,” she says. “We also like to laugh a lot.” For information, call Naomi Salamon at 310-836-1223, ext. 322, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friendship Circle of Los Angeles
Friendship Circle of Los Angeles caters to Jewish individuals ages 4-26 with special needs ranging from autism to Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and learning differences. In their core program, “Friends at Home,” typical teens make home visits to children with special needs. The organization also offers “Sunday Circle,” a drop-off program focusing on socializing and recreation, and summer and winter camps. All provide children with special needs opportunities to connect with teen volunteers and peers.
Volunteers, recruited from more than 58 L.A. high schools, are required to attend an orientation and complete a questionnaire to ensure the best possible pairings.
Development Director Gail Rollman says friendships between individuals with and without special needs can have a profound impact. Rollman’s son volunteered for four years, making home visits to a boy with Down syndrome. “At the beginning of their visits, the boy was very quiet and there was not a lot of interaction,” Rollman says. “After a few months of establishing a relationship, one day the boy and my son started to have an actual back-and-forth conversation. The mother happened to be in the hallway and witnessed this beautiful conversation. It brought her to tears, as she never thought her son would have a friend that would bring this out in him. She was overjoyed.”
Friendship Circle works with each family to make sure their particular needs are met, finding what best fits their schedules and priorities. Most programs are free, and the organization never turns a family away for lack of funds.
Interested families should make an appointment to meet with a program director or attend a holiday program to see Friendship Circle in action before signing up.
Find more information at www.fcla.org, or call 310-280-0955.
This global volunteer movement, founded in 1989 by Anthony Kennedy Shriver, is dedicated to positively impacting the lives of individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Best Buddies Friendship Programs are available in a number of area high schools and at UCLA and USC.
Friendship volunteers go through an application, interview, and training process, as well as Best Buddies specific training each year. Training, however, cannot substitute this common-sense advice. “When fostering new friendships, whether with special-needs kids or with typical kids, treat your friend how you would like to be treated,” says Jessica Foults, Director of Operations, Best Buddies California. “We really encourage age-appropriate activities. You should view this friendship just like any other. With time, dedication, compassion, patience and care, this friendship will truly blossom into something meaningful.”
Some Best Buddies activities are free, and some cost money.
For volunteers, Best Buddies is a minimum one-academic school-year commitment. Students are expected to communicate weekly with their Buddy and get together at least twice a month. Foults says it’s helpful when parents are supportive of this program by providing rides or donations. Attending a Best Buddies community event is a good way to get to know the program.
Find out whether your child’s school has a Best Buddies program at www.bestbuddiescalifornia.org. You can also contact the Culver City program office at 310- 642-2620 for information about starting a chapter, or visit www.facebook.com/bestbuddiescalifornia.
Circle of Friends
Circle of Friends was launched at Santa Monica High School in 1999 to help a student with Down syndrome who was mainstreamed in classes but isolated at lunchtime. “We built a different circle of two to three non-disabled peers around him daily, and he became fully woven into the fabric of his campus,” says Executive Director Barbara Palilis. “Students began saying hi as they walked to class, and interacted more easily with him.”
“Unless you have a child that is isolated, you may not appreciate what a social-skills program like this can do for the spirit of a child who may not have friends due to being a bit different. To have someone to call up and talk to, to go to an event with a peer can be priceless beyond your belief,” says parent David Kramer of the program’s impact.
Today, Circle of Friends brings inclusion to elementary, middle, high school and college campuses across the U.S. Parents or students interested in starting a chapter should visit www.circleofriends.org or call 310-312-6600.
“If people remember that inside we are all more the same than different – we all want to be understood, we all want to be accepted for who we are, we all want friends – then,” says Palilis, “our world will be a kinder and more caring place.”