Nine-year-old Geoff doesn’t talk much; he has difficulty communicating verbally. But his eagerness to go to camp last summer was palpable to his father, Steve Davis. Each morning, Geoff would place his father’s sandals right next to his feet, a clear sign to get started at 7:30am, two hours before camp actually started.
“He was ready to go to camp,” laughed Davis. “He was very, very excited about it. In fact, this is probably the first time he’s said anything explicitly positive. … Whenever he communicates something very strongly and clearly that he really likes something, it’s a special opportunity and I take it.”
The summer camp is just one of 11 support programs offered by the Bay Area Friendship Circle, a Palo Alto nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an inclusive environment for children, teens and young adults with special needs between the ages of 3 and 30. The Friendship Circle was formed 19 years ago, initially to help Jewish families, said Executive Director and Rabbi Ezzy Shusterman. But as its popularity grew, it opened up to all people. Today, the organization serves over 100 families, approximately 30% of whom are from Palo Alto and East Palo Alto and the remainder from surrounding towns.
“Our philosophy is that we pick up where schools and community organizations leave off,” Shusterman said. “A lot of kids might go to church, they might go to synagogue, they might go to public school or some other place — but when that’s over they’re kind of left alone. And we’re recording and we’re there. “
For Davis, Friendship Circle offers something most other organizations don’t: a chance for his autistic son to be a child. Between school and several hours of therapy each day, Geoff has very little free time to play.
“Friendship Circle is a break from school,” said program director Lauren Levinson, describing what she often tells new families. “It’s a break from therapy; it’s a place where the kids can come in, be themselves and have fun.”
Friendship Circle received $5,000 from the Palo Alto Weekly Annual Holiday Fund this year and helped restart some of its most popular activities, such as Ice Skating Day, Sports Day and Movie Day. Due to COVID-19 these activities did not take place in 2020 and 2021. The grant also helped cover emergency supplies such as masks needed to return to in-person programs.
The participants in the Friendship Circle particularly missed contact with their friends during the pandemic. Each program pairs a participant with a teenage volunteer who provides social support and friendship. Geoff met Josh Mandel, a 19-year-old student at De Anza College, at winter camp last year and they’ve been friends ever since.
Twice a month, Geoff and Mandel participate in the Sunday Circle, a two-hour program offering arts, music and movement activities for children and youth ages 5 to 20. The program, which can accommodate up to 45 participants, helps children interact with one another in a supportive environment.
“It’s a great way for Geoff to spend social time with other people and kids, which I think comes naturally when you’re not disabled,” Davis said.
These social interactions extend to the parents as well.
“It’s always a challenge for parents of children with disabilities to find people to connect with,” Davis said. This applies in particular when dealing with schools, government agencies and health insurance companies.
“It’s like this whole bunch of systems, and none of them work very well,” Davis continued. “So there’s a lot of communication and mutual support and sharing that folklore,” with the parents telling each other, “That’s how you get things done.”
Friendship Circle recognized the importance of these connections and developed a family support group for parents, grandparents and adult siblings. It has also developed a Kidz Circle program for younger children aged 3 and 4, at which age parents often receive a diagnosis about their child and have many questions about what to expect.
But the Friendship Circle is also an invaluable resource for families with older children. Meg Edgett’s 10-year-old daughter recently joined the Sunday Circle to make friends with other children like her. She is the only child with Down syndrome in her Hillsborough school district, a surprising situation for Edgett considering Down syndrome occurs in about 1 in 700 babies born in the United States.
“We’re a community small enough that we’re still looking for ways to connect,” Edgett said.
The circle of friends is now at full capacity; Many of its programs are full of waiting lists. Enrollment has been at an all-time high since the easing of pandemic restrictions, Levinson said, partly because not many programs offer regular one-on-one support, as seen with the buddy system.
“There aren’t many programs for kids with more severe disabilities,” affirmed Davis. “This is a real enrichment. People come from all over the Bay Area to participate, families with children with disabilities, as well as people who volunteer to help, which is cool.”
The Weekly Holiday Fund’s annual charitable fundraiser is well underway with the goal of raising $600,000 for local nonprofits that serve children, families and individuals in need. Read more about the holiday fund below PaloAltoOnline.com/holiday_fund or go to embarcaderomediafoundation.org/holiday-fund/palo-alto Donate.