January 16, 2019

Rebecca Kianmahd: Early friendship comes full circle

HIGH SCHOOL: Milken Community Schools

When Rebecca Kianmahd first walked into the Friendship Circle’s building on Robertson Boulevard nine years ago, she was a little fourth-grader tagging along with her older sister, Jessica, who volunteered there. 

She’ll never forget seeing her sister interact with a young girl with Down syndrome; it was the beginning of a relationship between Rebecca and the organization that would last to this day.

Since that first visit, Rebecca, now an 18-year-old incoming freshman at UCLA who graduated from Milken Community Schools, has volunteered at Friendship Circle — a Chabad initiative with programs that support families of individuals with special needs — every week. And that’s in addition to a bevy of other volunteer opportunities in which the driven graduate participates.

“I think starting at such a formative age just changed my perspective on life, and allowed me to mature very quickly, and allowed me to see the world through the perspective of people with different abilities and different challenges,” Rebecca said.

Already familiar with UCLA, where she interned for an anesthesiologist this year and is also a research assistant at the school’s ADHD and Development Lab, Rebecca wants to major in psychology (with a pre-med track) and minor in disability studies. She plans to go on to medical school and become a pediatrician, bringing full circle a love of working with children, sparked when she was a child herself. 

“[Friendship Circle] made me realize I love working with children, which is why I want to be a pediatrician,” said Rebecca, the daughter of Iranian immigrants.

In addition to her weekly work at Friendship Circle, Rebecca has worked in the group’s office during her summers in high school; volunteered in Sinai Temple’s Beit Bracha program for children with special needs, which has included tutoring a second-grader with autism so that he can participate in regular classes; and worked as a counselor-in-training at Camp Kesem at UCLA, a summer camp and peer support group for children who have a parent battling cancer. She plans to continue working at Camp Kesem as a college student.

Although Friendship Circle sparked Rebecca’s passion for helping children, it was a more subtle event, at a later age, that she said made it clear to her that she could make an impact on others. When she was 11 and hanging out with a close friend who was going through a hard time, she said her friend’s mother was very concerned that something was bothering her daughter to the point where she wouldn’t eat anything all day — until Rebecca ate something, too.

“I sat down with her, and her mom kept trying but she wouldn’t [eat]. Her mom offered me some food too, and as soon as I started eating, so did she,” Rebecca said. “I realized that even in the slightest moments I was making a change in her life. For the first time, I realized I was making a difference.”

In recognition of Rebecca’s work with children, Yozma — Milken’s social action leadership initiative — recently awarded her its Neshama Award. And Friendship Circle recognized her excellent work by giving her its Heart and Soul Award at a May 24 dinner.

Gail Rollman, Friendship Circle Los Angeles’s development director, said she’s known the Kianmahd family for 20 years, and has enjoyed watching Rebecca grow and mature.

“Rebecca has excelled academically, socially and personally while at the same time making tikkun olam (repairing the world) a priority,” Rollman said. “She’s thinking about becoming a pediatrician. Not so hard to imagine!” 

Not so hard to imagine, perhaps, because at a young and formative age, Rebecca’s love for her sister brought her into Friendship Circle, which helped nurture her love of children who could use her help.

“It gave me confidence to go out and be a leader in my community,” Rebecca said. “It’s given me the ability to see life through other people’s eyes and understand and to provide somebody with [the] empathy you need to put yourself in their shoes.”