Teen Volunteers Feted at Recognition Event

After four years of hanging out together on a weekly basis, Sammy — a 16-year-old who is autistic — knows the drill exactly once fellow teenager Avriel Finder walks through his front door.

"We do puzzles, eat popcorn and watch some Disney movie," said Finder, an 18-year-old senior at Lower Merion High School.

The ongoing relationship has given Sammy a social outlet, which isn't exactly easy for someone with special needs. For his parents, it means a break from the hectic schedule that comes with caring for such a child.

"The parents can just go for a walk with their dog or get dinner ready," said Finder. "It's just an hour of free time" for them.

Finder is a volunteer at the Friendship Circle, a project sponsored by area Chabad Lubavitch Houses that pairs special-needs kids with teenage volunteers.

Along with the Friends at Home program that brought Sammy and Finder together, the Friendship Circle runs month- ly events called Sunday Circles, where volunteers spend time with special-needs kids in a group setting.

Overall, the group serves 75 young people and has 115 teenage volunteers, according to Rabbi Zev Baram, who founded it in 2003 with his wife, Chani.

"Any kind of socialization that these kids get from people who are honestly there to be a friend is a good thing," said Baram, who everyone seems to call "Rabbi Zev."

The Friendship Circle honored its volunteers with a gala event on March 2 at the Painted Bride Art Center in Old City.

The evening featured dinner, an awards presentation and a short film about the program.

At the Sunday Circles, which meet in different locations in the Main Line area, special-needs teens participate in group activities, work with music or movement therapists, or just hang out with their assigned volunteer.

"If the kid you're with wants to sit in the corner and read a book or play chess, that's okay," said Baram.

Matt Tregerman, a 19-year-old who has autism but is high functioning, said that his favorite part of Friendship Circle is the wide array of games. "And the volunteers are great," he added.

The rabbi noted that, many times, the only people surrounding special-needs kids are doctors or professionals "marking down this or that" about them and judging their behavior. At the Friendship Circle, the time is theirs to do as they please.

Rich and Sheryl Tregerman — parents of Matt, as well as of his 16-year-old brother Lane, who also has special needs — use their two hours of time to exchange ideas with other parents.

"You've got parents that have kids who are teenagers and have gone through this. They can help," said Rich Tregerman.

The Friendship Circle also sets up activities for the parents, like a rabbi who taught meditation and a financial planner who talked about the economic transition from taking care of a special-needs child to an actual adult.

Emily Acker, 17, is quick to point out that her "special friend" Anna, 12, is "so funny." After just a short time, Acker said that her viewpoint on people with special needs changed. "Now I feel much more comfortable; it's a great experience all the way around."



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