His childhood characterized by frequent interactions with volunteers from the Friendship Circle, New Jersey’s Alec Russin decided to give back, coordinating a summer camp program for the organization as part of his bar mitzvah project. Some 25 kids ages 5 to 12 took part last week in the three-day experience, an action-packed program that instead of the local Friendship Circle’s camp for children with special needs, focused on their siblings.

“The children were so excited,” enthuses Alec’s mother, Andrea Russin. “At the end, they were all asking whether it’s going to occur next year.”

Four days after the September 11 attacks that would claim the lives of her husband and thousands of other people, Russin gave birth to twins. Soon thereafter, her local Chabad-Lubavitch center was sending teenagers to help around the house as part of its Friendship Circle program. Though the program, like scores of similar branches around the globe, usually focuses on serving families with children with special needs, organizers recognized that the Russin family’s situation was unique, and that their own team of teen volunteers was in a position to help.

Two of the original volunteers returned as counselors for the camp experience last week.

“They’re both grown women now, and came to help out,” says Russin.

Months of work went into planning the summer project, which took siblings to Fun Time America, an indoor amusement park in Westchester, N.Y., the New York Science Museum, and the Bowcraft Amusement Park in Scotch Plains, N.J. The first two days were exclusively for siblings of children with special needs, while the third day welcomed campers from the Friendship Circle’s main five-day camp.

Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, whose Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Center of MetroWest has run a camp for children with special needs for the past 10 years, says that siblings can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. His goal is to give them opportunities to get together and enjoy themselves, and to meet others facing similar familial challenges.

“This is something we have always wanted to do, to expand the camp for siblings,” he states.

Lori Solomon, whose children Jacob and Lily, both 9, attended the camp, and whose other daughter Hannah, 18, joined them for the final day, says she thought the camp was a great chance for the kids to share an amazing experience.

Months of work went into planning the summer project.
Months of work went into planning the summer project.

Jacob and Lily were especially excited to get to go, as they’re used to watching their mom drop their sister off at the Friendship Circle main camp.

(More than 100 campers and 200 volunteers participated in the main program.)

“I love the fact that we’re all in the car together and everyone’s so excited talking about what they did,” says Solomon. “It’s pretty special.”

Beyond the activities themselves, Solomon says the important take-away is Friendship Circle’s amazing ability to make everybody feel good, well taken care of, valued and happy.

“To me, this is just an extension of what Friendship Circle does so well,” she explains. “It’s great to see all of your kids going together and smiling and thrilled. It’s what a parent really wants, and yet again, Friendship Circle did it.”

She points out that Friendship Circle has evolved to meet the needs of older kids and teenagers, and adds that she looks forward to seeing Jacob and Lily stay connected to the organization.

“They have a spiritual and emotional attachment to Friendship Circle, and my daughter Lily’s goal is to be a volunteer,” says Solomon. “I just love their attachment to Friendship Circle, to the people in Friendship Circle and the deeper meaning that really has.”