The theme was “The Power of Love” as the Conejo Valley, California Friendship Circle celebrated its 10th anniversary at the Hyatt Westlake Plaza hotel on Monday night and paid tribute with Pioneer Leadership Awards to 19 volunteers.
The nonprofit Friendship Circle has several programs, but its most popular is Friends at Home, through which teenagers visit a child with special needs weekly, share quality time and foster a relationship.
“What I think is most significant about the Friendship Circle is its uniqueness in giving an opportunity for teen volunteers to give back to the community by befriending and being buddies to special-needs children,” said Rabbi Eli Laber, director of the Friendship Circle.
“In 10 years, we’ve had over 1,000 teenagers go through the program volunteering. … One of our pioneers asked to transfer back to a California college because he missed visiting his ‘kid.’ Those are things no one could expect when we started the program.”
For Jenny Silver, now 24, Friendship Circle was life changing. While she was volunteering, from ages 15 through 18, she buddied with a 4-year-old boy with Down syndrome and then a 5-year-old boy with autism.
“I work with autistic kids now,” Silver said. “I’m a behavioral therapist. I would have had no exposure to it without Friendship Circle.”
Maya Ehrmann, who now lives in Israel, was involved in the Friendship Circle for two years when she was ages 16-18.
“I worked with another girl and we visited a little boy who was 8,” she said. “He had just moved to the United States, so he was still learning English and he would be waiting by the window every week. We would take him for a walk and play with him.
”I learned to be patient,“ she said. ”He was very physically strong and active. But he was so appreciative, and it was such a good feeling.“
Nick Vujicic, who was born without arms and legs and has become a motivational speaker, was the keynote speaker Monday and received the Hometown Hero Award.
”On the establishment of faith and God and understanding that we can serve one another as human beings on Earth in making the world a better place, one soul at a time, I love what the Friendship Circle does,“ Vujicic said.
Vujicic’s aunt and uncle Batta and Ritta were the banquet chairs and were thanked for touching the lives of many and for their support of the organization.
Greer Shellow, 17; Mackie Golub, 16, and Jacob Ojalvo, 17, participate in the Sunday Circle program, which is held bimonthly at Yerba Buena School.
”I love playing with the kids,“ Shellow said. ”We play games, do art and music.“
Golub also enjoys the commitment.
”It’s really fun,“ Golub said. ”It’s really nice because sometimes kids with special needs don’t really get to be in the groups at school, so it’s really good they can have one-on-one time with people.“
Ojalvo gets a sense of accomplishment from spending time with the kids.
”I’m learning about the wide variety of kids who have special needs, especially in this area, and how volunteers can help out,“ Ojalvo said. ”You feel like you did something good at the end of the day.”