When schools and activities for youngsters shut down in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Taryn Stack wondered how she was going to keep her daughter occupied. Olivia, 14, is nonverbal and has other disabilities that make it difficult for her to socialize. But Stack and her family, who live in Matawan, were delighted when Olivia’s friends from Friendship Circle of Central Jersey started appearing on her computer.
“I wasn’t sure how Olivia would respond,” Stack said. “Everyone looks different on a computer, and you can’t give a high five — but she started clapping and lit up like a spotlight when she saw her music teacher singing the ‘welcome’ song.
“Olivia has a limited understanding of the pandemic and why she isn’t going to school, so this was really needed.”
Friendship Circle, based in Manalapan, serves more than 120 children and adults with disabilities by providing a range of programs that foster social and educational bonds. The organization quickly adapted as the pandemic descended, replacing its in-person programs with online sessions in cooking, arts and crafts, martial arts, music, “mad” science, and more. “Kids with special needs need structure so much more,” said Friendship Circle director Chana’le Wolosow. “We wanted to keep consistency for them, so right away we went virtual. We want them to feel the warmth and love of Friendship Circle and feel they are a part of something bigger.”
Started by Chabad of Western Monmouth County, Friendship Circle runs several programs — from swimming to social hangouts to at-home playdates — for individuals age 5 and up.
The group’s Sunday program, which ordinarily involves close to 90 participants joining volunteers at a local school for two hours of activities, was retooled to take place over Zoom. It offers sing-alongs, dance moves that could be done at home, and a demonstration of how to make sugar cookies, with participants assembling ingredients in their kitchens.
Volunteer Yael Spector, who is 15 and lives in Marlboro, has been Olivia’s Friendship Circle “buddy” for the last two years. They normally see each other every week at the Sunday program. Since the pandemic started, Yael has also been setting up a weekly Zoom call with Olivia’s mom, so she and a volunteer-in-training can hang out with Olivia. “I share my screen and pull up a Just Dance video on YouTube, and Olivia does the dance moves with us,” Yael said. “She was jumping and smiling.”
Yael, a freshman at Freehold High School, said she has learned from volunteering with Friendship Circle for the last three years that “you can completely connect with somebody without having a conversation. Olivia and I didn’t talk, but we would dance, and she always reached for my hand. I learned many other ways to communicate with someone without talking.”
Since the pandemic set in, members of Friendship Circle’s four-person staff have been calling each participating family twice a month; they also have done the shopping for some families in need of assistance. Volunteers have dropped off activity packets at participants’ homes every few weeks, with an eye to keeping youngsters involved who are not able to interact online. They dropped off gifts for moms on Mother’s Day, and recently started a six-week online sign-language class for teen volunteers to provide an additional tool for communication with some program participants.
Jessica Maury, 16, has been volunteering with Friendship Circle since last summer because, she said, “I didn’t want people feeling like they didn’t have friends and nobody could talk to them.” Since the pandemic began, she has been connecting online with her buddy, 11-year-old Sabir. When they play matching games, “he gets a gleam in his eye because he’s really having fun,” she said. Volunteering has taught Jessica how to be a better listener. “I can figure out what someone’s feeling, and put myself in their shoes,” she said.
On June 14, Friendship Circle held its annual Walk4Friends fund-raiser virtually, with participants walking, running, or biking the 5K distance in their own neighborhoods. The walk usually draws more than 1,500 participants and raises half of the organization’s annual budget. This year’s event raised more than $128,000, less than half of their almost-$400,000 current budget.
Friendship Circle will continue its online programs through the summer, at no charge to parents. (Usually there is a minimal fee.) Barbara Carter is thankful that the programming will go on, because she and her husband are both working from their home in Freehold, and all the other activities that used to keep their 22-year-old daughter, Valerie, busy have been on hiatus. Valerie has autism and limited verbal skills.
When Valerie signs on to Friendship Circle activities, “she can get on Zoom, and I can walk away,” said Carter. “She doesn’t like to move, and I came back and she was doing a dance class on her own.” Valerie has also been doing art programs, karate, and making pizza dough. She has participated in Friendship Circle for seven years, recently moving to the adult program.
“Part of her disability is she really can’t make friends, so this is a place for her to be social with her peers,” Carter said. “It gives her a connection, and that really helps. She has something to look forward to.”