Westport volunteers get more than they give
Laughter and whispers are heard in the Westport driveway where Rebecca Yormark, 14, and her friends, Hannah Bjornson, 18, and Greta Bjornson, 13, color in the outlines of their bodies they sketched with pink, green and purple chalk.
In many ways, this bond of friendship is similar to relationships forged among young people throughout Fairfield County. The major difference, though, is that Hannah and Greta are volunteers for Beth Israel of Westport/Norwalk's Circle of Friends, a non-sectarian program that provides activities for youngsters with special needs.
Founded by Norwalk resident Rebbetzin Freida Hecht in 2004, children with special needs are visited weekly in their homes by one or two teen volunteers for a play date. The American Red Cross recently presented Hecht with its 2011 Community Impact Award. And June 5, an "Evening of Recognition Dinner" will take place at Beth Israel of Westport/Norwalk, where U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal will present awards to Circle of Friends volunteers.
"They are there to be the child's friend," Hecht said about the teen volunteers.
She pointed out, though, that the teen volunteers receive more than they give to youngsters they befriend.
As an educator, Hecht observed that children with special needs were excluded from social activities. "They weren't receiving birthday party invitations and doing things that we all take for granted," she said.
The group now serves 100 families.
"It was a very big honor for me to receive the award but, more importantly, this was momentous because it brings attention to all of the families, adults, friends and children with special needs. It's brings focus to the need to reach out and bring about inclusion and acceptance,' Hecht said. "Everyone has to become an advocate for others."
Westport resident Diane Yormark, Rebecca's mother, said that participating in Circle of Friends has changed her daughter's life.
"People don't realize that children with special needs have to have friends their age, too," she said. "Before this, the phone never rang. I tried to reach out and make play dates, but I think people are afraid."
Since joining the program a few years ago, though, Rebecca not only has Hannah and Greta's weekly visits to look forward to, but she's also met a "best friend" through the monthly meetings sponsored by the Norwalk synagogue.
Diane Yormark shared how heartbreaking it was to hear Rebecca comment a few years ago that she wanted to go to the movies with her friends.
"I told her that I would take her and she said that she wanted to go with someone her own age," the mother said. "There was no one that she was close to until we joined Circle of Friends."
She first heard about Circle of Friends by "word of mouth," and she admitted that she was initially skeptical. "At that first visit, though, I thought, `I can't believe what I've been missing,' she said.
About 100 teen volunteers help run the two-hour monthly meetings, held at the Norwalk temple. Coordinated by Hecht, a variety of activities are offered that focus on sports, music, art, cooking and science. Because individuals with special needs typically have shorter attention spans, Hecht likes to keep the program moving along.
Diane Yormark said, "Freida goes all out. There have been balloon magicians, live animals and lots of baking activities that sometimes focus on the Jewish holidays. The kids love it."
There is also a weekly group for adults with disabilities. Hecht said that the monthly gatherings are meant to provide a "respite" for the caretakers, too. "We hope to be able to give them a break," she said.
For the past two years, Hannah has been visiting Rebecca at her Westport home Monday afternoons. Since December, she has brought her sister Greta with her because this fall, when Hannah leaves for college, Greta and another volunteer, Sydney Robison, of Westport, will take over.
"Every week is so hectic, but I would have to say that the most rewarding day of my week is Monday," said Hannah. "I really love coming here to see Rebecca and I'm really going to miss her next year.
"Every high school student has to do community service but I really wanted to find something where I could make a real difference that I could see in someone's life," Hannah said.
She found that in her friendship with Rebecca.
About the relationship with the two Bjornson sisters, Rebecca stated, "They're really nice." Rebecca also agreed that they spend a lot of time together laughing and having fun.
"They always arrive with big bags filled with stuff to do," Diane noted.
Most recently, Hannah and Greta brought over bags of stickers and beads to play with. "We try to switch it up," Hannah said with a smile.
The recognition dinner, which is open to the public, begins at 5:30 p.m. with a buffet dinner and Chinese auction. The awards ceremony will begin at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $72. For info, call 203-293-8837 or go to www.circleoffriendsct.org.