Friendship Circle recently held its volunteer kickoff event, with almost 100 Fairfield County high school students in attendance.
Malya Shmotkin, director of Friendship Circle, and Menucha Hanoka, program coordinator, explained that there were about 100 kids with special needs currently participating in The Friendship Circle of Fairfield County, which is affiliated with various Chabad organizations throughout Connecticut.
With a multitude of programs available, Friendship Circle participants and teen volunteers have many activities in which to participate, such as bar/bat mitzvah programs, camps, Friends at Home, Friendship Day & Walk, holiday programs, the Mitzvah Volunteers Program, special events, Children’s Circle, the Volunteer Club and parent events.
Following welcome greetings and a meaningful d’var Torah, the afternoon’s speaker, Tracy Schmitt, was introduced. Schmitt was bubbly and extroverted and immediately established a rapport with her audience with her unwavering eye contact. Schmitt was born missing all four limbs, but that hasn’t stopped her from parasailing, climbing the Himalayas, being the captain of a tall ship in the Eastern Atlantic, sailing in the North Sea on a flat-bottom vessel called the Lutgeerdina, horseback riding, swimming, bicycling, skiing and, along the way, earning her master’s degree in business from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School.
“Unstoppable You,” Schmitt’s book, offers these introductory words: “Have you ever wondered what it means to be unstoppable?” As a leader, humanitarian, advocate, decorated athlete and international speaker, Schmitt delivers the “lim(b)itless secret” to exceeding possibilities in her book, demonstrating how one can look at challenges and achieve an unbelievable life. Her mantra, “If I can do it, you can do it. What’s your excuse?,” resonated with her audience of teen volunteers and parents who attended the presentation. Her mind-blowing stories, delivered with wit and enthusiasm, were met with standing ovations.
Emma Goldberg, a Friendship Circle volunteer since the eighth grade, is 16 years old, lives in Stamford and is a student at a specialized public magnet school. “I have been working with the same buddy… and took a position on the teen board this school year.” Volunteering once a week for two hours with her buddy in the home program, she also attends other events throughout the year, such as the Walk and Run, the Hanukkah program and more.
Goldberg encountered many challenges working with FC. “My buddy cannot talk or walk, and this made it hard to keep him engaged and having fun when he was confined to a wheelchair and communication book. Yet, over time, we overcame many barriers when it came to communication. We even started doing a variety of activities together as he got more comfortable outside of his wheelchair. Soon enough, we were baking together, making slime and even jumping on the trampoline.”
Goldberg explained that FC has taught her many lessons. She has learned through her experiences that you can never underestimate someone. She believes that inclusivity is important in all aspects of life, and helps to build a larger community. One of her most memorable experiences was when she and her buddy completed the FC walk last spring.
“I pushed his chair around the track the entire way, both of us exhausted. The feeling of crossing the finish line was the most rewarding and connecting moment, as we both knew we had accomplished an amazing feat. This was supporting the community and standing up for those who cannot, while fostering inclusivity.”
Goldberg added, “My work with the Friendship Circle has made a true impact on my life forever, and I cannot wait to see where it takes me throughout the rest of my high school experience and beyond!”
Another student, Yoni Semel, is 16 years old, lives in Stamford and is a student at the Leffell School in Westchester. Semel has been involved in FC since seventh grade. He has been working with the same buddy since ninth grade and plans on continuing to work with him until graduation.
Semel volunteers once a week and explained, “This activity is important to me because I understand the privilege I have and I want to help people who don’t have the same privilege that I do. The Friendship Circle has taught me to have sensitivity towards all people and to understand the power of non-verbal communication.”
To learn more about The Friendship Circle of Fairfield County, please visit their website at www.FriendshipCT.com.
By Yvette Finkelstein