Sam Goto, a teenager with Koolen de Vries syndrome (KdVS), endured developmental delays as a child and as a result, a deep sense of loneliness. As his mother, Stacy Goto says, “Sam craves social situations. He loves being with people. His peers were politely social but they never sought him out. No one called to say, ‘Let’s play’ or ‘Meet me outside.’”

Sam’s family found their way to the Friendship Circle, a faith-based organization that matches children with disabilities to teens, so that they can both benefit from each other’s life experience.

The twice-weekly visits from Sam’s first pair of new teen friends quickly became high points on his calendar. Every few years, Sam would gain two new companions and would also remain in touch with his prior volunteers. Today, lonely no more, Sam serves on the Friendship Circle’s Teen Leadership Board and just ran the Miami Half Marathon with a guide from the group.

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When teens befriend children with disabilities, who gets more out of the deal?

“It’s a tie,” says Rabbi Mendel Groner, the Friendship Circle’s Director. “In today’s technology-driven world, true friendship is becoming a lost art. We find that our teenage volunteers get just as much out of the experience of developing friendships with children with disabilities as do those individuals with disabilities. That’s why we call it the Friendship Circle, because a circle is never just one way.”

Sam (together with Liz Newman, a staff member from Friendship Circle Central Jersey).

Sam (together with Liz Newman, a staff member from Friendship Circle Central Jersey).
(Nechama Kotlarsky)

Last week, I ran the Miami Half Marathon as a fundraiser for the Friendship Circle and got to know Rabbi Groner and his team for the first time. The driving force behind the group, I learned, is the Jewish belief that every single human being has a specific purpose on Earth and unless everyone can achieve his or her purpose, the world remains incomplete.

“It can be harder for people with disabilities to reach their potential,” Rabbi Groner says. “At the Friendship Circle, the people with disabilities whom we serve discover that they are capable of far more than people might ever have imagined. And our volunteers, who are teens, discover the same thing about themselves.”

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Rabbi Groner gives the example of a young woman with learning disabilities who became paired with a teen in one of the Friendship Circle’s 80 chapters, this one located in North Carolina.

“No one ever told her she was smart,” Rabbi Groner says. “But through the friendship with a teenage volunteer, she realized she had more to offer than she thought. She received the encouragement she needed to apply to college. She has since enrolled in a four-year B.A. program, and is attending on a full scholarship. Would that have happened without the friendship and connections she made with the volunteer who served her? Maybe not.”

The Friendship Circle’s weekend in Miami prior to the race was a tightly organized event offering religious services, festive group meals, and inspiring speeches for the 209 runners from 27 cities who participated. The runners ranged in age from 14 to 64. The Friendship Circle began its connection with the Miami Marathon in 2012 with just seven runners.

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The group also offers fundraising opportunities for a Grand Canyon camping and hiking experience in May, Bike Miami, the New York City Half Marathon and New York City Marathon, and other events.

“We live in a world where everyone is staring at their devices all the time,” Rabbi Groner says. “The foundation of friendship is empathy, and in a world dominated by technology, empathy is becoming a lost art. That’s why we say our teens, who are part of a generation suffering from an epidemic of loneliness, benefit just as much as the people with disabilities they serve. A circle never ends, and friendship doesn’t have to end, either. If everyone can reach his or her true potential, then everyone wins.”

As Sam’s mother Stacy told the Friendship Circle runners in Miami last week, “Everyone needs a friend and everyone needs to be a friend; friendship is everyone’s responsibility.”

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