By Laura Shaposhnikova
Everyone wants a friend. A hug, a smile and a helping hand. Besides being basic survival needs, these acts of love really help the world go round.
Hoping to spread love a little further, university Chabad Rabbi Eli Backman brought YAD, the young adults division of Friendship Circle, to the campus.
Friendship Circle is a national organization that strives to partner children with special needs with a volunteer around the same age. Together, they make memories and battle the loneliness that children with special needs often face.
The organization helps students learn how to interact with people who look or act differently than they do, Backman said. “The participants do not have any other program like this one for their age bracket. As we often hear, they love the interaction and friendship almost more than anything else.”
Backman initially thought of connecting Chabad with YAD after hearing that a number of his students participated in Friendship Circle in high school. He wanted students to provide an opportunity to extend their connections and continue participating in the worthwhile program while in college.
At this university, YAD group members participate in monthly on- or off-campus activities or excursions, giving participants time to bond with their partners or pick up a new skill.
“It is an opportunity that isn’t a huge time commitment. It generally doesn’t interfere with school work and it’s rewarding,” said senior hearing and speech sciences and Jewish studies Amy Schneider, who rarely misses an event and helps coordinate and advertise events on Facebook.
In January, some students met up with their partners for a hands-on baking lesson at Sunflower Bakery. The Gaithersburg bakery trains and employs adults with special needs.
YAD members have also ventured to Potomac for smoothies and yoga. Even simple outings, sophomore management major Aaron Shirian said, can make someone’s day.
“There are many treasures life has to offer,” said Shirian, a frequent volunteer. “In college we are getting ready to pursue the material treasures, and there is nothing wrong with that. But it is easy to forget the simple joy of making others happy.”
The best part of the experience is developing personal relationships with the special needs students, Schneider said. Last year, she became digital pen pals with a girl named Carly.
“Every so often she sends me emails,” Schneider said. “Last week she sent me a Valentine’s Day e-card that she made, so I sent her one back.”
The experience is humbling, Shirian said, and it helps students not only improve the lives of others but learn to appreciate their own.
“My best experience so far was probably when one of the younger boys offered me a bag of hamentashen that he had made,” Shirian said.
The experience provides much more than just a line to add on one’s resume, Schneider added.
“It’s a pleasure doing it — it’s not a burden,” she said. “It’s easy to keep coming back.”
If you would like to get involved or want more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or join YAD UMD on Facebook for updates on future events.