Sixteen Years After Arrival, Philly Friendship Circle Hits Stride

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teens stand in a circle
Friendship Circle in 2019 (Photo by Lee Senderowitsch)

This time of year, Chani Baram thinks a lot about the strides her organization has made.

When the Friendship Circle arrived in Philadelphia in 2003, it didn’t even have programming for the first year, as organizers sought to build a network of interested volunteers and participants and understand the needs of the community. Today, the Friendship Circle, a Chabad organization dedicated to pairing Jewish teens with Jewish children and young adults with special needs for meaningful friendships, is able to help more people than ever before.

To Baram, who runs the organization with her husband, Rabbi Zev Baram, it’s not unlike watching their children grow up.

“There’s been a big shift,” she said.

To the Barams and the participants and their families who depend on the organization for weekly activities and enjoyable spaces for their children with special needs, the changes in the scale and breadth of programs have been noticeable and deeply appreciated. And for the volunteers and their families who have interacted with Friendship Circle, the formalization of their education in special needs and in leadership skills has been an added bonus, on top of the volunteering.

Just ask Nancy Black.

Her son, Adam, first joined the Friendship Circle around 2009. Black wanted her son to have a hands-on Bar Mitzvah project, one that would require more from him than raising money. The Friendship Circle seemed like a good fit.

Adam’s experience, Black believes, was a good one — he was given manageable leadership tasks and maintained his connection to the Friendship Circle and its participants after his Bar Mitzvah — but there seemed to be something missing.

“It definitely wasn’t as organized as it is now,” she said. Her proof: the experience of her younger daughter, Elise.

Elise was able to take part in a beefed-up leadership training that gave her a greater sense of how a nonprofit functioned, without sacrificing her actual volunteering time with participants. Black noticed how much it seemed to help her daughter mature.

“It really was very effective,” she said.

Baram said that the changes that volunteer and participants families alike noticed had to do with several factors. Besides a few unexpected grants around 2012, she said, there was the decision to hire full-time staff to assist her and her husband. This professionalization, according to her, Black and others, was noticeable immediately.

Though she quickly came to appreciate the organization, Elise said, it changed even during her time.

“During my time as a volunteer, the organization became additionally focused on developing programming that would teach its volunteers to be effective advocates and confident leaders,” she said.

When the Black family first became involved with the Friendship Circle, Nancy Black wasn’t sure it would become a long-term home for them. This past year, she and her husband, Martin, were the honorees at the 2019 gala.

Rabbi Margot Stein has seen the changes, too. Her son, Raffi, began as a participant when was 8 or 9 years old. The value to him was apparent right away.

“He immediately felt like he had a Jewish home where he was accepted for who he was,” she said. It was comfortable, fun and a chance to be creative (the Sunday afternoon programming always had an art component). But it was, as Stein said, a “literal mom-and-pop organization.”

While the force of personalities of the Barams is still vital, she believes, the professionalization has been a boon to the organization. Hiring an executive director has, from afar, seemed to take unnecessary pressure off of the founders, and other hires — behavioral specialists, for example — have made the experiences more constructive for participants. Even when it comes to art, participants now have chances to visit professional art studios.

Nowhere is the change more obvious than with Raffi, who now is able to work as a volunteer within the organization, and even serve in a leadership role. This version of Friendship Circle, Stein said, has allowed Raffi to not just be a “receiver of services,” but “to grow into being a service provider.”

“It helped him to find and locate himself on different parts of the circle that is the Friendship Circle,” she said.

Baram knows there’s still ground to cover. As many of the participants who began as children have grown up, Friendship Circle has begun to explore how they might be served by the organization in new ways. And she stresses that the buy-in and support of the community has been as valuable and necessary to the growth of the organization as any single program or hire. She mentioned 2012 as a pivotal growth year, punctuated by the gala honorees — Vicky and Gary Erlbaum — who introduced Friendship Circle to a wider swath of donors.

“The whole community became more inclusive,” she said.

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