It’s Wednesday, and 13 year-old Matthew is waiting eagerly at home for the arrival of his two Friendship Circle volunteers for an afternoon of fun. Matthew is the middle child of Michelle and Paul Kaplan and has Fragile X syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes severe speech and other cognitive deficiencies. Michelle was introduced to Friendship Circle when Matthew was two and admits at the time she did not know how to take care of Matthew. Michelle relates, “I was overwhelmed” and “on an emotional roller coaster.” She was anxious about Matthew’s future and afraid to take Matthew on community outings out of fear that he would be rejected or scrutinized.
Nechama Harlig, co-director of Friendship Circle, suggested that Matthew might benefit from the Friends@Home program. In this program, teenage volunteers visit special needs children in their familiar home surroundings. Michelle decided to try it.
Eleven years later, Matthew is still enjoying the friendship and close bonds formed with his volunteers. According to Michelle, the volunteers helped Matthew learn how to be a friend. They do whatever makes him happy. “This is a unique time,” says Michelle.
“They enter Matthew’s world.”
The Friends@Home program is one of currently 21 programs offered by the Friendship Circle of Miami to promote inclusion, and cultivate friendships and life skills among children, teens, and adults with special needs. The non-profit’s unique model pairs individuals who have special needs with typical teens and adults –from over 34 local schools – to ensure that people with special needs benefit from the Friendship Circle’s full range of social, recreational, and educational services; and to engage young people with and without special needs to learn, celebrate, and play side by side.
For Michelle, Friendship Circle has been a blessing personally. Being a parent of a child with special needs can be stressful on many levels. Friendship Circle has given her peace of mind. Matthew gets to experience friendship and; in turn, Michelle gets respite when the volunteers are there. Michelle, who struggled with anxiety, says that Friendship Circle has helped her emotionally.
“I can now let my guard down to let people into my world and Matthew’s,” says Michelle.
Having volunteers who accept Matthew as he is, no matter what, has made Michelle more trusting of other people. She is no longer hesitant about taking Matthew out into the community. It has given her the comfort that when she is gone, there will be others there to advocate for Matthew’s future.
“If I had one wish, it would be for the world as a whole to operate the way that the Friendship Circle does,” says Michelle.
To learn more about the Friendship Circle, visit www.friendshipcirclemiami.org or call 305-234-5654.