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.
The day went well. Both wanted to continue.
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.)
Thank you for your part in ” our Great America!”
Sent from my iPhone
Circle of friends is a wonderful organization which took off from a similar nationwide organization that does the same thing in matching teens with other children with disabilities, but they do it in pairs. The nationwide organization is called the FRIENDSHIP CIRCLE.
It is wonderful to know that there are these kinds of organizations to help bring all different kinds of children together. It’s good for both the volunteers and their friends with special needs!
Great job to the organizers, volunteers and the parents who are raising such wonderful young people (both the volunteers and the participants)
What a wonderful story! Proof that all you need is a kind and understanding heart and a positive outlook!
The Circle Friends of Connecticut is a most amazing program within our community.
Pairing Teens with boundless energy and idealism –involved in sharing a meaningful and lasting friendship with a child with special needs is a most wonderful Mitzvah and good deed!
The quality and offerings of the COF program – plus the growing number of teens participating from within our community – gives this all volunteer program an A+ for its impact on the larger Community as a whole even as it impacts the Teen Volunteer and the Child with special needs.
Dan, as you often do, you have once again shared the essence of this great Circle of Friends with your talented writing and and wise heart.
Looking forward to attending this great evening of recognition and fund-raiser on April 2nd at the Inn at Longshore, Westport.
What a great program! Thank you, Dan, for bringing some awareness to this program. I would like to get my son involved in something like this.
Freida is extraordinary. She is a bright light of compassion, caring and inclusion– especially now, when every day brings more news of excluding people because of their religion, national origin or disability– of excluding people not because they did anything harmful, but simply for who they are. I look forward to seeing Freida and the Circle of Friends at Longshore on April 2nd.
Great story. Congratulations to PJ and Jonathan Ross. Dan Thanks again for another good 06880 story.
Thank you for telling people about Freida and her wonderful program! I hope some of your readers will get their children involved and/or make a donation to Circle of Friends. My son Danny (next to Freida on the right) can’t wait to be with Freida and his friends at the Circle. He would happily spend every day with them if he could.