Special-needs kids glow when teen friends show

By: ELLEN SCHUR BROWN Editor, Family Section

Published: Thursday, February 5, 2004 4:01 PM EST



Avital Pessar, left, outfits Barbie, assisted by Ronit Peerless and Hannah Rosenblum. The teens have a playdate with Ronit each week, helping her learn advanced social skills.

Best friends since kindergarten, Avital Pessar and Hannah Rosenblum gave up playing with their Barbie dolls years ago.

But every week now, they brush up their fashion-show skills and play Barbies with their new friend, a lively, 8-year-old named Ronit.

They're good "best friends" for the flaxen-haired little girl with Down syndrome. They play hide and seek, board games or read aloud to her. And the three choose outfits, purses and shoes for arranged Barbie marriages.

This girls club came about through The Friendship Circle, a group that matches special-needs children with teenagers for social interaction and sharing.

"We go once a week to work with kids who have special needs. We make them happy and give the parents a break," explains Avital, a freshman at Fuchs Mizrachi. "Ronit is so happy when she sees us. She tells us we're her best friends. It's so sweet."


"Each time we have more fun. There are so many things to do," says Hannah, also a freshman at Mizrachi.

"New game," Ronit interrupts.

As the older girls help her into her tutu and dance slippers, Ronit glows. The older girls are enjoying themselves, too, with the novelty of a little "sister" to fuss over and little-kid games to play outside their high-school world.

"Everyone should have a friend," says Estie Marozov, youth coordinator for The Friendship Circle. The program is basically unstructured home visits between volunteers and families, although Marozov will plan holiday activities for everyone, such as a Chanukah Fun Day at the Jewish Community Center. She expects teen volunteers to set up a time each week to play with the children, sing Jewish songs, and generally "act like a Jewish mensch" for children who might not have other friends as role models.

Ronit lives in Beachwood with her parents, Joel and Sharon, and twin brothers, Benji and Elie, 13. Sharon asked Avital and Hannah to walk over on Shabbat as a special treat for her daughter.

"Otherwise it would be a boring day for Ronit because her (public-school) friends don't live in the neighborhood," she says.

"Ronit benefits from interaction with the teenagers," says Sharon. "They're older girls, so she looks up to them. But they keep coming back every week, so they must be getting something out of it, too."

When they play hide and seek, Ronit squirms under her bed with Barbie sheets while the girls pretend to look for her. Meanwhile, Peerless prepares a favorite dinner: fish sticks and ketchup.

Volunteers send a postcard to Marozov each week with details about how they're doing. The cards spill enthusiasm:

Shani Joseph and Malkie Koval went on a Shabbaton weekend with their Friendship Circle family. The girls watched their young charge so his parents could go to classes at the Shabbaton. "We love him. He's the best," they wrote.

Esther Bernstein and Racheli Lever decorated Chanukah cookies with their Friendship Circle friends. "The triplets had a really fun time and so did we," they commented.

Sheera Krainess, Adina Ireland and Chaya Apell wrote, "Thank you so much for letting (us) do this big mitzvah."

The Friendship Circle has 25 teen volunteers from five schools: Brush, Laurel, Mizrachi, Hebrew Academy and Mosdos. And they're expanding. Special-needs children age 4 to 10 who would like an older friend or teens who want to get involved and meet other Jewish youth are all welcome.

A training session with an occupational therapist is set on Feb. 25 for new volunteers. Call Marozov at 216-381-4736 or e-mail [email protected] to join this enriching matchmaking service.

The Friendship Circle is sponsored by the Cleveland Chabad Chai Center and the Youth Initiative Personnel Grant of the Fund for the Commission on Jewish Continuity of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland. It is administered by the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland.