The Friendship Circle of San Diego (aka FC) enriches the lives of children, teens and adults with special needs through social and recreational experiences while inspiring volunteers to participate in building a stronger and more inclusive community.
Michelle, age 18, suffers from cerebral palsy. She has never tasted food in her lifetime. She has never had a drink of water. She cannot speak. She cannot walk unassisted. But, Michelle can play the piano beautifully! Her teen volunteer buddy, Josh, taught her. Josh, age 16, is one of the Friendship Circle’s 200 teen volunteers. But, Josh is different from most of our other volunteers. He has Tourette’s syndrome (involuntary body twitches) and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). However, Josh is musically gifted, and he shared that gift with Michelle. Prior to becoming a volunteer, Josh was “raised” within the Friendship Circle. Initially shy, withdrawn and with low self-esteem, over the years Josh blossomed and became a role model and a leader for other teens and an advocate in the community for those with special needs.
Stacy, age 34, suffers from severe ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder). Like many other higher-functioning individuals, she is acutely aware that her developmental disability sets her apart from her peers. Feelings of isolation and alienation gave rise to an equally severe case of clinical depression, as attested to by several suicide attempts and hospitalizations. Stacy discovered FC, or rather FC discovered Stacy. Her weekly interaction with volunteers, staff and peers – in an accepting and nurturing environment – have contributed significantly to Stacy’s determination to build a meaningful future for herself. She is currently pursuing a college degree with the goal of becoming a teacher, and is dating with the goal of marriage and raising a family.
FC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit nonsectarian program. Founded and run by local parents of children with special needs, we have been providing services and programs for the special needs community since 2005. With the generous assistance of friends like you, FC is able to provide most of these needed services free of charge to our families with special needs. We currently serve 150 such families with the assistance of our 400 specially-trained teenage and adult volunteers.
FC creates meaningful and lasting connections between families with special needs children, teens and adults and their non-disabled peers. Using a unique approach to recreational and social inclusion, teen and adult volunteers share community activities, weekly home visits, and holiday celebrations with individuals with disabilities. Deep bonds develop and barriers disappear.
From being different and misunderstood, deprived of the basic fun of youthful play to feeling the joy of having a special friend and being part of a group, children with special needs experience the most fundamental necessity of childhood: friendship.
Through outreach and training in the community, FC is able to educate the community about the valuable contributions individuals with differences have to offer when we include them in our congregations, workplaces and social events.
The Friendship Circle of San Diego is a local chapter of an international organization. Each chapter is financially independent. Among the advantages of having a network of loosely connected local chapters are: access to an on-line forum, webinars and resource library; workshops; and an annual directors’ conference. We are also able to take advantage of large-scale purchase power by joining with other chapters.
In the San Diego community one in every ten families has a loved one with a special need, and this statistic is steadily rising. FC has identified a number of significant challenges adversely impacting both the special needs population of San Diego, as well as the general populace.
1) The vast majority of special needs children, teens and adults in San Diego are sorely lacking meaningful friendships and social activities. They frequently have challenges in social situations and experience difficulty expressing themselves appropriately. Imagine what your life would be like if you had no friends. Imagine yourself as a child with no friends and no social activities – as a child who never receives a visit or a phone call from a peer, never a birthday invitation or sleepover invitation. Imagine yourself as a child who is the last to be picked for a team sport. Imagine yourself as a child who is teased and bullied. Imagine yourself as a teen or an adult facing the same problems.
2) Among those with special needs, there is a significant segment of individuals whose physical or emotional disabilities are so severe that they are unable to leave their homes to participate in social activities. Fully one-half of all the families served by FC fall into this category. This sad state of affairs affects not only the individual with special needs, but his or her entire family. The stress of caring for a homebound child, teen or adult often wreaks havoc on the entire family unit. Underlying this difficult predicament is the unfortunate reality that, apart from FC, there is not a single charitable organization in San Diego that visits special needs individuals in their home to bring friendship and social activities into their lives.
3) Teens with special needs, especially those that are higher-functioning, present a particular challenge in the community. Many such teens do not want to attend a “program for kids with disabilities”. Although desperately in need of friendship and social interactions, they do not want to be seen associated with any group that might be labeled as somehow deficient or different. Unable to form friendships or peer relationships with typical teens, and unwilling to form friendships with other special needs teens, they become particularly susceptible to estrangement, alienation and loneliness.
4) Siblings of special needs children often receive “the short end of the stick”. So much of the family’s time and resources go into caring for the special needs child that the siblings go with their own needs unattended. They do not feel that they have the right to demand the attention they need.
Nor can they share their particular challenges with their classmates and peers who are not exposed to the difficulties of living with a disabled sibling.
5) Parents of special needs individuals face a host of challenges that typical parents cannot even imagine. The physical and emotional strain and stress along with the financial costs of raising a child with special needs often leads to broken marriages or to the institutionalizing of the child.
Such parents are in need of emotional and physical support. They often need a break while someone else pitches in. They need the emotional security that comes from knowing they are not alone in providing for their children.
Parents are often devastated by their child’s ostracism from his/her peers. They look on helplessly as their child is rejected by others.
6) Typical, non-disabled teenagers in San Diego face an array of issues. Some grow up in privileged households, are pampered with material possessions, and often become terribly self-centered. Others grow up in professional households and are often neglected by busy parents who have precious little time to devote to their teens’ needs. Some teens who lack the ability to excel in scholastics or sports suffer from low self-esteem. Still others, teens who are quite bright and ambitious, find no outlet in which to express their talents in such a way to be of benefit to society. What we see lacking are opportunities for our teens to properly channel and develop their talents and skills in a spirit of volunteerism to enhance the lives of those around them, and therefore their own lives. As a result, statistics related to teen abuse of “recreational drugs”, to promiscuity and to other negative behaviors in San Diego are becoming uncomfortably high.
7) Adults with special needs also face unique challenges. Many are unable to be gainfully employed, leaving them with considerable amount of time on their hands, and no constructive outlet.
Many of our older adults have lost their parents, and with that loss, their anchor in a stormy sea.
8) Most San Diegans within the general populace are ignorant of the needs and the abilities of the special needs population. There is a definite lack of inclusion for the developmentally disabled, both within the social fabric of our society, as well as in the employment sector. Special needs individuals suffer exclusion from social events, and are disproportionately unemployed and under-employed.
The following programs directly address the issues and challenges listed above. With the help of our friends like you, FC has made significant inroads and will continue to make significant inroads to address these issues. We invite you to partner with us is making San Diego a better place for all San Diegans.
This program forms the foundation of FC. It is similar to a “big-brother, big-sister” program, but for children with special needs. Those with special needs frequently have challenges in social arenas and develop few friends. Through the F@H program, teenage volunteers visit children with special needs in their homes on a weekly basis, engaging them in a variety of activities based on the individual child’s preferences. The teens are there – not to provide therapy – but friendship. For the child with special needs, friendship is not easily attained and these visits provide a rare opportunity to connect with another person in a social context.
Monthly events are held at FC headquarters with activities for the entire family including art, crafts, games, music, dance, yoga and sports. Ample volunteer assistance makes this a pleasurable experience for both parents and children.
Simultaneous informal or formal parents’ workshops are often conducted.
Family trips to places around San Diego include the Zoo, Children’s Museum, ferry, trolley, tide pools, and hiking. Many local amusement facilities provide substantial discounts, and allow one volunteer per child gratis.
Three evenings monthly our adults with special needs meet for varied activities: outings, exercise, cooking, music, art, crafts, Jewish holiday celebrations, social dinners, etc. This program provides an ideal setting for building life-long friendships, as well as a vital support network for dependent and semi-independent adults.
This program has a high ratio (3:1) of typical teen volunteers to challenged teens because many higher functioning challenged teens don’t want to attend a “program for kids with disabilities”, but rather want to be part of a regular group of girls going out to have a good time.
This program was completely conceived of and initiated by teen volunteers. Teens organized the camp, recruited the campers, and designed the camp brochure. They also instituted a Jr. Counselor program to train the higher-functioning teens with special needs to serve as junior counselors. After their training, they are paired up one-on-one with full counselors, and spend half their day helping and half their day engaged in fun activities themselves.
Thinking of activities they themselves would enjoy, two FC teen volunteers created a venue for special needs kids and teen girls to come together and explore the world of performing arts. Completely self-directed, the two organized the program, designed fliers, planned the curriculum and recruited friends, volunteers and local performing-arts experts to participate.
Other weekly or monthly programs include adaptive yoga, music, sports, and specialized dance classes. Many of these programs are planned and run by our teen volunteers. One teen project raised money to buy iPads for non-verbal kids, selected appropriate software, and taught them how to use the devices.
Home Hospitality for holidays for both volunteers and special needs families: This provides the opportunity to enjoy a meaningful family or holiday experience, which many of our families rarely have the opportunity to enjoy.
Many parents are socially isolated either because they fear a communal stigma attached to their child’s disability or because their energies and focuses are totally absorbed in attempting to meet their child’s myriad of needs. Their social and communal needs are often overlooked. We provide informal social events as well as organized lectures by professionals in an inclusive environment in which parents can share ideas, socialize and receive support from one another and the FC staff and volunteers.
Frequently overlooked are the “typical” siblings of the child with special needs. Often times the special needs child consumes the attention and resources of the family. The feelings and needs of the non-disabled child/sibling sometimes get “lost in the shuffle”. Their schoolmates do not understand or share their experiences and this can lead to feelings of loneliness and frustration. FC currently does informal sibling support at the recommendation of our volunteer psychologists.
Due to financial limitations and issues of perception, organizations and institutions have traditionally been very resistant to addressing the needs of the special needs community. FC is developing workshops for administrators and educators to assist them in making their schools and organizations more inclusive.
Inclusion Workshops for students at schools and youth groups: We provide fun, “hands-on” workshops where we simulate different disabilities, and where the students role-play what it would be like to have a challenge. We then discuss with them how their current activities might be modified to include those with challenges. The focus is on how they can apply in their own lives, in their schools, congregations, and communities, what they have learned in the workshop.
In addition to assisting families with special needs, FC is committed to developing teen leaders. Although many of our teen volunteers are successful academically, some of them are not, and volunteering for FC gives them an opportunity to succeed in a different area. By having a “Special Friend” who loves them for who they are, and who waits eagerly for their visit every week, these teens learn how to be sensitive to others and not judge them by external appearances or abilities.
For mothers of special needs children. Women enjoy the opportunity to bond with other women, have a respite from their many care-giving duties and a brief chance to focus on their own needs. This program is especially relevant for mothers who have been isolated socially and may have few, if any friends.
For fathers of special needs children. Men appreciate a “night with the boys”, bond together and receive support from one another. Social activities include BBQ’s, bowling league, softball or basketball games, or tickets to a sporting event.
Teen Boys Club: For moderate to high-functioning teen boys. A high ratio of two or three typical teen boys to one challenged teen provides a setting in which high-functioning challenged teens would feel comfortable joining. Some high-functioning teens feel self-conscious about being associated with more severely challenged individuals, preferring to see themselves instead involved in a group of “regular” boys. In the FC setting they will be given the chance to succeed, to feel good about themselves, to build up their confidence and self-esteem, as well as to have good role-models.
Adult Life Skills Group: For moderate to high-functioning adults.
The Friendship Circle has been awarded special recognition by Autism Speaks and Easter Seals for its work with autistic adults.
FC has been recognized by Guidestar and Great Charities for its work with the special needs community.
One of FC’s teen volunteers has received the prestigious local Peter Chortek Teen Leadership Award, for her creation and administration of FC’s summer camp, Camp Let Loose.
Two of FC’s teen volunteers recently received the National Jewish Kids Have Power Award for their creation and administration of FC’s Shooting Stars Performing Arts Club.
Friendship Circle offers assistance and support to hundreds of individuals with special needs by providing a large range of social activities and at home programs. Friendship Circle is volunteer based and serves the special needs community. Click here for detailed information about our programs.
To learn more please contact us or call the Friendship Circle Office at 858-487-4879 and request an information packet and video.