The room full of girls squealed, clapping as mind reader Ted James got it right again and again. The mentalist picked out their names, their pets’ names, their birthdays and their career aspirations. He asked four teens to choose cards from a deck: “If I have in fact picked your card, please be seated.”

Three sat with gasps. The fourth’s card came soon after.

They sat in a circle around him at the Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn, N.Y., where 50 teens and 15 mentors, many just older than their charges, gathered Saturday night as part of Friendship Circle International’s Volunteer Convention weekend. They flew in from around the country to learn, grow, and be recognized for the work they do as part of a Chabad-Lubavitch run organization whose aim is to bring friendship to children with special needs and raise public awareness of those children’s conditions.

With 82 branches in eight countries, the Friendship Circle’s hometown projects are rooted in the relationship building that comes out of “Friends at Home,” a core program in which volunteers visit children at their homes, explained Rabbi Benzion Groner, director of Friendship Circle International.

“The concept was so powerful, of bringing the two communities together,” he said. “It’s really caught on in many different communities.”

Once the relationships are built, teens and their newfound friends then go on to participate in life-skills programs, sports programs, holiday programs and other activities.

Leah Singer, 16, is part of a group of 100 volunteers in Miami.

The daughter of a pediatric neurologist, she grew up in the waiting room “reading The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar to anyone who would listen,” she said. Although she knows some people are intimidated by working with special needs kids, working with them has given her a stronger sense of purpose and self worth.

Singer and her sister visit a young boy whom they enjoy watching grow.

“He loves us so much; his family has become so close to us,” she related. “We make them challah every Friday and we babysit on weekends. We’ll never forget a Chanukah or a birthday.”

Singer was excited to come to Brooklyn for the weekend, a welcome opportunity to meet a bunch of other Jewish girls she identifies with.

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Two participants at the International Friendship Circle Shabbaton in Crown Heights, Brooklyn talk about their weekend.

“We’re all here for the same reason,” she explained. “We’re all here to help the world, which isn’t rare, but it’s hard to find.”

The theme of the weekend was “Rewrite the Script,” a mission that sent teens on a scavenger hunt in Manhattan to interview people about their perceptions of special needs individuals and that builds the foundation for work they’ll take home.

The purpose was “getting the word out of what they’ve learned,” said Groner, “and to expose people to children with special needs.”

Freya Gothelf, 17, of Detroit said in addition to having a blast at the weekend’s activities, she learned a new strategy to connect with her buddy.

“I think we have an amazing connection already, but I want to make sure she knows she is a huge priority in my life,” said Gothelf.

The two go to the mall, bowling, the library and swimming as part of their local Friendship Circle’s Torah Teens program.

“We [also] go horseback riding, which is her ultimate favorite thing in the world,” said Gothelf. “And her favorite colors are orange or green, depending on the week.”

Her four years in the Friendship Circle, including two years in the Torah Teens program, have changed her completely.

“It has made me realize what’s important in a person, how to be patient, how to be non-judgemental,” said Gothelf.

A mentalist entertained 50 girls and 15 mentors as part of the convention.
A mentalist entertained 50 girls and 15 mentors as part of the convention.

Estie Berkowitz, 14, from Los Angeles, came to the Friendship Circle program after her sister volunteered with the organization as part of a Bat Mitzvah project.

“I felt like doing it with her, and that was last year,” said Berkowitz.

Now, she volunteers with the Friendship Circle’s Hebrew School, where she works with a five-year-old boy who is “a lot smarter than I gave him credit for at the beginning.”

He really enjoys learning, she said, “and he’s really happy all the time, and so much fun to be around.”

Being part of Friendship Circle has brought Berkowitz from not knowing how to react when she meets people with special needs to a true appreciation of those differences.

“Now I know that they’re normal people,” she stated.

For an organization with about 11,000 volunteers, there’s something captivating the teens, said Groner. He credited teachings of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, who stressed the inherent worth and unique abilities of every individual.

That message resonates with teens, explained Groner, who are at a place in their lives where they ask themselves questions of purpose and value.

Saturday night’s event featured a smoothie bar and a make-your-own pressed sandwich station. After the event, the participants headed downstairs to watch a film about Temple Grandin, a high-functioning autistic woman who earned her Ph.D. in animal science and is an expert on animal behavior.

Meanwhile, the footage shot by the volunteers during their scavenger hunt was complied into a video they’ll be able to share at home, along with the lessons learned during their activities. The weekend closed with a boat cruise off of Brooklyn.