When Connor Larson turned 4 years old, his family became actively involved in the Friendship Circle.

“Connor absolutely loves going there,” Stacy Larson of Farmington Hills, Mich., says of the flagship project that gave birth to a network of Chabad-Lubavitch programs benefitting children with special needs around the globe. “You can tell that when he walks in the door. He loves pushing buttons, he loves going inside; he feels like a normal kid.”

The whole family enjoys the resources, community aspects and support network other families provide, continues the mother, explaining how fellow parents share ideas, triumphs and struggles. Originally begun as a way to pair teenage volunteers with children with special needs, the Friendship Circle opened in the mid-1990s, reflecting teachings of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, that identity is a soul-based concept, unencumbered by whatever challenges a person faces.

“That’s the heart of Chasidic teaching and it’s the central message of Chasidic thought,” explains Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Friendship Circle of Michigan. “What’s outside is not what counts; it’s what’s inside. This is a healing message that can affect people physically and spiritually.”

All told, 87 Friendship Circles provide various levels of programming for children with special needs and their families. They broaden social circles, instill life skills and advocate for increased communal awareness and sensitivity. And according to organizers, volunteers gain at least as much from the experience.

“When we go there, we’re two adults who are trying to do the best for our kids, and everybody else is doing the same,” says Larson, who appreciates the program’s Jewish foundations and a unique approach she hasn’t found anywhere else.

The result, she enthuses, is a place where Connor can learn essential skills, attend Hebrew school and also choose from enrichment activities like karate, all under the watch of a warm and caring leadership.

“You kind of lose those things when your kid has disabilities,” says Larson. “But here he can learn just like any other kid.”

The family sees Connor gaining more confidence and becoming open-minded when encountering the world around him.

Circle of Friends

Jen Lovy of West Bloomfield, Mich., recalls with a chuckle the time she was out with her son and received stares at an area shoe store from some teenage girls.

“You get used to being out and having people looking at you when your kid is acting up,” she says. She was getting ready to leap to his defense when they explained they were staring at him because they recognized him from Friendship Circle. “Finally they came over and said, ‘Is that Evan?’ And what could have been a negative experience was actually a warm fuzzy thing. It turned out to be a very positive experience.”

Because teen volunteers pair off with the youngsters as part of an ongoing home visit program, there are a number of teenagers in the community who know Evan and Lovy’s other kids.

“It’s a little like Evan the Star,” says the mother. “Because everywhere he goes, I feel like somebody knows him either from school or Friendship Circle.” The environment Friendship Circle provides is nurturing and welcoming, adds Lovy, and it’s training a new generation of kids to understand and respect people’s differences without feeling the need to treat them differently or look at them strangely.

“Everybody understands that this is just how some kids are,” Lovy says of the generational shift she attributes to the Friendship Circle. “They have a room there where I’m hanging out with my kids while they’re playing, and out of nowhere a mom and her son walk in and we start talking, and now she’s one of my really good friends.”