Freida Hecht is passionate about the power of friendship. With 11 kids of her own, she knows the importance of children laughing, playing and just being kids together.
She also knows that youngsters with special needs often have limited social lives. They may not belong to sports teams or school clubs. They’re seldom included in play dates.
Thirteen years ago Frieda — who teaches adult education, runs a Hebrew school, is a community activist and, oh yeah, has 11 kids of her own — matched Westport 2nd selectman Shelley Kassen’s daughter with a young special needs girl. They planned one afternoon together.
Word spread. Freida matched more children with autism and disabilities with teenagers who wanted to be friends. The circle spread.
Today, the group has a very appropriate name: Circle of Friends. More than 150 teens — in Westport, Weston, Wilton, Norwalk, Easton, as far as Ridgefield — spend at least one weekend a month with their special needs friends. Circle of Friends clubs support the effort at Staples and Weston Highs.
Their time together includes the usual things friends do: Baking cookies. Playing games. Bowling.
“Friendship does not need special training,” Freida notes. “Just an open heart.”
Circle of Friends opens many hearts. After the first meeting between one new volunteer and her young friend, Freida called the mother for feedback.
The woman said she peeked in, and saw her daughter laughing loudly.
“I’ve never heard her laugh before,” the mother said.
The connections last beyond weekends. Another woman said her child always sat alone at lunch. Now she eats with the “cool kids.”
The students who join get as much out of the Circle as their friends. “Teenagers want truly meaningful volunteer opportunities,” Freida says. “This builds their self-esteem and confidence too.”
On April 2 (the Inn at Longshore, 5 p.m.), Circle of Friends celebrates 13 years — and the current 150 volunteers — with an “Evening of Recognition” fundraiser. Westporters Jonathan and PJ Ross — whose 2 children participate — will be honored.
Three siblings will also speak. Their topic is “the art of friendship: passing the torch.”
In 2008, Jillian Pecoriello was matched with a 3-year-old boy. Three years later, when she graduated from Staples, she asked her brother Scott to continue the tradition.
When he graduated, he made sure his younger brother Justin kept the friendship alive.
During school and summer vacations, Jillian and Scott hang out with their friend. They’ve become part of his family.
Justin graduates from Staples this year. But he’s already made sure that Ethan Gross — a current freshman — will spend the next 3 years with their friend.
The Pecoriellos’ parents — Andrea and Bill — are past Circle of Friends honorees. Now, they’re spearheading a Circle campaign to create a baker to employ adults with disabilities.
“Their family’s entire foundation is one of giving and sharing. They’re infused with goodness,” Freida says.
She believes that friendship is “a basic necessity of the human condition.”
For 13 years, she’s made sure that Fairfield County’s circle of friends is big, wide, and very loving.
(For more information about the Circle of Friends’ “Evening of Recognition,” click here.)