October 17, 2018

A place for special-needs children to grow

Tani Lazaroff had some news to share with his mother a few months ago.

“Chanie, do you know what I have?” the 10-year-old asked his mother, addressing her, as he usually does, by her first name. “I have a neshama. Did you know that I have a neshama?”

A neshama is the Hebrew word for soul, and it was all Chanie Lazaroff could do to hold herself together. Tani has special needs — delays in behavioral, social and motor abilities. So unlike his two sisters, he doesn’t attend a Jewish day school. He didn’t even attend Hebrew school until a few years ago, when Friendship Circle — a nonprofit organization providing Jewish educational and enrichment programs for special-needs children and their families — opened up two Judaic classes on Sunday morning for kids with special needs.

And that is where he found out he has a neshama, and where he picks up the knowledge he needs to participate in his family’s Shabbat discussions of the weekly portion, where he is learning to read Hebrew and where he feels part of a Jewish community. His sister volunteers at Friendship Circle, and Chanie Lazaroff is a teacher at its Hebrew school.

Established in 2003 by Rabbi Michy Rav-Noy and his wife, Miriam, the Friendship Circle of Los Angeles (FCLA) is hitting a milestone this month as it opens the doors of its new campus on South Robertson Boulevard. A 17,000-square-foot space, including four large classrooms, ample office space, two multi-use rooms and a bunch of bathrooms, is a huge upgrade from the 6,000 square feet of rented space on Pico Boulevard that Friendship Circle is vacating. In fact, the expansive central courtyard in the new space alone is larger than the entire old facility.

“What this means is that we have a tremendous opportunity to utilize this new space to make an immediate impact on the community with expanded programs, and then in the long term we can finally make a serious impact on Jewish education for kids with special needs,” Michy Rav-Noy said. “God willing, in the next few years, we will be opening up a full-fledged, rock-solid preschool for kids with special needs.”

The community will have a chance to see the new space at a grand opening celebration on Sept. 9, where kids with special needs, and the teen volunteers who befriend them, will create Rosh Hashanah-themed art projects, bake challahs, make shofars and enjoy a barbecue lunch. The event is free and open to the public.

Friendship Circle is an international project of Chabad, but each chapter runs independently and receives no funding from Chabad. FCLA has an annual budget of around $600,000, covering four full-time employees and a handful of part-time teachers, behaviorists, consultants and a fundraiser.

Friendship Circle’s signature program pairs teen volunteers with special-needs kids through its Friends at Home program. The teen, or sometimes a pair of teens, visits with the child once a week, forging lasting bonds with children who often feel isolated, and sometimes providing the child’s only Jewish connection.

Currently, 80 children receive visits from more than 100 volunteers through Friendship Circle of Los Angeles. The volunteers come from almost 50 high schools and represent a broad swath of the Jewish community.

Friendship Circle of Los Angeles has grown to include regular holiday celebrations, a winter and summer camp, a quarterly birthday bash, Sunday Hebrew school and a Sunday Circle program, where parents drop off their kids for a few hours of music, sports, crafts and play time. All the programs include teen volunteer buddies. 

In the old space, the Sunday Circle program had to be capped at 20, but with more space, Friendship Circle hopes to expand it.  The summer camp can lengthen from one week to two because now children can enjoy activities on campus — no longer must they take field trips every day. Two more classes have been added to the Hebrew school program.

The Rav-Noys had been looking for a space for about a year when they heard that the bank was foreclosing on a building owned by Chabad of Beverlywood. 

Through a series of events that the Rav-Noys are sure stemmed from divine providence, Friendship Circle was able to cut in front of three other bidders and work out a deal with Chabad of Beverlywood and its bank to acquire the building for a bargain $1.3 million — a sum that would barely buy a starter home in the area. A donor had previously promised that if Friendship Circle found a building, he would donate part of the cost and offer a loan for the rest at favorable rates.

Within two days, Friendship Circle had the building. It required minimal work — and much of that work was donated in-kind. Chabad of Beverlywood is renting space in the building for its daily and Shabbat services. An independent preschool that had been leasing the classrooms has moved out, and a kosher caterer will continue to lease the industrial kitchen.

In classrooms, freshly painted in schoolroom pastels, cozy beanbags and low-lying rockers already sit waiting on area rugs made of brightly colored connecting circles. The white supply cabinets have multicolored handles, and dual-language nametags in the cubbies await the Hebrew-school kids. 

Gail Rollman, director of development for Friendship Circle, imagines nonverbal kids leading their grandparents and parents down the hallway, touching their artwork pinned to bulletin boards.

“What we want most is for kids to take ownership — to feel like this is their home,” Rollman said. 

The centerpiece of the building is the outdoor space. Now an asphalt yard with aging playground equipment and some scattered metal benches, the yard will be transformed into a color-splashed, disabled-friendly playground and imagination space.

Friendship Circle has raised $150,000 of the needed $250,000 for My Backyard, including an $80,000 grant from the Real Estate Principals Organization of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Friendship Circle plans for the playground to be ready by next summer.

The playground, which will be covered in sun shades and lined with circular pods of colorful rubberized mats, will have a recessed carousel, so that the platform is flush with the ground and accessible to wheelchairs and walkers. A raised-bed garden will offer wheelchair and walker access for an intense sensory experience. Several spinning apparatuses will be accessible to those with limited muscle control. A jungle-gym and monkey bars, as well as water and sand play areas, will offer tactile interaction.  The plans call for a basketball court, a play hut and tables, all encircled by a poured-rubber bicycle track with traffic signs and hills and bumps. At the very center, a friendship tree, surrounded by benches, will give volunteers and their kids a special spot for quiet moments.

Miriam Rav-Noy plans to host more programs for parents to build community, and she looks forward to creating the preschool, which she believes can eventually be developed into a full Jewish day school for kids with special needs.

First, though, attitudes need to change, she said.

“Unless a person is directly touched by a special-needs child, the depth of what it really means is lost,” she said. “When we bring together typical teens and kids with special needs, you begin to build that understanding.”