Teenagers Take Charge


Teenagers Take Charge

by R.C. Berman - West Bloomfield, MI

May 8, 2007

With 62 branches across North America, and another two in Australia, the Friendship Circle is turning ordinary teenagers into extraordinary individuals.

During Zoe Pinter’s freshman year in Frankel Jewish Academy she absorbed notebooks and textbooks full of knowledge, but she learned even more from Matthew.

Matthew is a fragile boy who lives with a serious heart defect, frequent epileptic seizures and speech impediments.  Before Zoe, 15, was paired with Matthew at the Friendship Circle in West Bloomfield, MI, she saw herself as impatient.

"Matthew helped me loosen up," says Zoe. "I’ve become more patient and more caring because of him.”

If Zoe and the rest of the Friendship Circle’s International Volunteer Club board have their way, more people will begin appreciating the value of children with special needs.

Their new campaign “Imprint the World” asks teens to jumpstart awareness of the impact of befriending a child with special needs by penning articles for their school papers, writing local dignitaries, volunteering for the Friendship Circle or the coup de grace of getting a celebrity to wear the new Imprint t-shirt at public events. Though the Shluchim Office, a central address for Chabad-Lubavitch educational and programming initiatives, is coordinating and funding the effort, its leaders: Ariel Charney, Zoe Pinter, Melissa Rotblatt and Jessie Weberman are all under 17.  They have been given the responsibility of channeling the energies of the 8000 teen volunteers involved in the 62 Friendship Circles across North America, with two branches in Australia.

Shari Goldberg, president of the Cleveland chapter of Cure Autism Now/Autism Speaks has witnessed firsthand how Friendship Circle activities benefit volunteers and children with special needs. Kivi and Jeff, students at Fuchs Mizrachi School, visit her ten-year-old son Noah who is affected by autism. Kivi recently won an award for an essay he wrote about the first time Noah made eye contact with him. Goldberg realized that her son’s Friendship Circle buddies have been changed by Noah.

"I think they understand that all children give gifts, but some gifts are more special when they come through patience and waiting.”

Ariel Charney, Imprint’s 15-year-old president, has already convinced four friends at St. George High School in Westmount, Quebec, to volunteer at the Friendship Circle.

 “I told them it’s not only a learning experience, it is so much fun, and at the end of the day you put a smile on a child’s face.”

Ariel sees Imprint as a chance to spread the word far beyond her social circle, where misconceptions, prejudice, and social stigmas about children with special needs still linger.

Choosing young people to lead the campaign is a smart move, according to Leah Comery, a direct care coordinator for Lifespire, a non-profit organization that serves people with mental retardation and developmental disabilities based in New York City. “The earlier people are taught to be friends with this population and treat them like equals, the more the stigma will be broken down.”

Placing adolescents at the head of a worldwide campaign works on another level, too. Teens are fearless. Shoshanna Newman of West Bloomfield went straight to the top: she wrote a letter about Imprint’s goal to Oprah Winfrey. That’s just the gumption her Friendship Circle director Bassie Shemtov wants to see.

“With the volunteers in charge, they have more of a feeling of ownership. That it is their responsibility to spread word about why it’s important to have kids with special needs as a part of their lives and imprint this message on the world.”

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