Special-needs campaign aims to raise awareness

Special-needs campaign aims to raise awareness

The Friendship Circle of Greater Mercer County has launched WE CARE, a new countywide campaign to promote the community’s acceptance, awareness, and inclusion of people with special needs.

The effort will include a range of programs, including information tables at supermarkets and malls, monthly educational events, and a resource fair in the fall.

“The whole idea of the Friendship Circle is based on a verse in the Torah — ‘V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha,’ ‘Love your fellow as yourself,’” said Mushky Wilhelm, program director of the organization. “Children with special needs deserve the same opportunity everyone has. That’s definitely a big part of it — accepting everyone for who they are.”

That goal is at the heart of the many activities of the Friendship Circle, one of 86 branches affiliated with Friendship Circle International, according to executive director Rabbi Shmuel Wilhelm, Mushky’s husband. Originally run as a program of Chabad Lubavitch of Greater Mercer County, the local branch became an independent organization in 2010.

The Friendship Circle runs a range of programs for children with special needs and their families, including Friends at Home, which pairs volunteer teen buddies with children with special needs; Mini Chefs, in which young girls with special needs learn to cook; and a new job placement initiative.

“One of the things we put a big emphasis on is to get people to be more accepting and understanding of people with special needs,” Shmuel Wilhelm said. “One of the ways to do that hands-on is to get people to volunteer with the Friendship Circle and associate with children with special needs.”

Better self-image

The WE CARE campaign is designed to sharpen that focus and to bring it to the attention of the wider community, he said.

Friendship Circle recently set up a WE CARE table in Princeton’s Palmer Square to promote awareness, and the organization is planning to staff such tables at supermarkets and malls throughout the county.

“It’s also going door-to-door, handing out pamphlets and speaking in person to get people to be more understanding of people with special needs,” he said.

Another component of the campaign will be monthly community events. One, tentatively scheduled for September, will offer participants the opportunity to participate in a simulation of dyslexia.

“We hope that through the simulation, it gives the person a chance to go out of his shoes and puts him in the shoes of someone else, to experience what a dyslexic person experiences,” the rabbi said.

Plans are also in the works for a movie festival highlighting people with disabilities and web seminars.

The culmination of the campaign will be Expo: Friendship, a resource fair scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 28, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., at Robbinsville High School.

“We hope to have 100 vendors and exhibitors that serve those with physical and mental disabilities,” Wilhelm said. He added that the fair would also focus on special education and behavioral issues and on raising awareness about resources in the community.

Breaking the stereotypes around people with special needs has always been one of his goals, the rabbi added.

“The idea of giving of yourself to someone else — that’s what the focus of the Friendship Circle is,” he said. “All the programs and services we offer have the same focus — to make sure that those who have disabilities are taken care of in a responsible manner, and that those who don’t have special needs are educated into the acceptance of people with special needs.”

Among those who have benefitted from the Friendship Circle are Princeton-area couple Irv Newman and Myra Weiner and their 38-year-old son, Larry Weiner, a man with developmental disabilities who lives in a group home, Citizens for Independent Living in South Brunswick.

The family belongs to the Jewish Center in Princeton, and Newman also takes his son to the Sunday-morning minyan at Chabad Lubavitch of Greater Mercer County. The couple hosts Friendship Circle programs.

“One of the many benefits is a social life,” said Myra Weiner. “There aren’t a lot of places someone with special needs can meet people and socialize, and this organization provides that in a very relaxed, friendly, and open way.”

Her son particularly loves participating in the Friendship Circle Bowling League, she said — so much so that he saved up to buy his own bowling ball, bag, and shoes.

“I think he really loves it, and he very much likes the leaders, Rabbi and Mrs. Wilhelm,” Weiner said. “He just adores them, and he enjoys being together with other people like himself.”

It all adds up to a better self-image for his son, said Newman.

“I think that’s what most people with special needs need,” he said, and the Friendship Circle leaders are “very good at helping people to feel positive about themselves.”

For information about the Friendship Circle, go to www.mercerfriends.com, or call 609-683-7240.

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