Circle of Friends makes a point at Staples High
This is another installment of "15 Minutes of Fame," a feature that focuses on notable students attending Staples High School in Westport.
High school can be daunting for even the most confident teenager. For young men and women with special needs, life can be even tougher.
Everyone needs a friend. Fortunately, area youngsters have a "Circle of Friends," a popular and personal program run by Beth Israel of Westport/Norwalk and started by Freida Hecht.
For a number of Staples High School students, it's the highlight of their week.
Twice a month, high school volunteers and special-needs youngsters gather at the synagogue. They do arts and crafts, cook, listen to music, play sports and games, and take field trips. But the individual relationships are extra special.
Last year, Zoe Greenblatt and Olivia Hammer met once a week for an hour or more with a fourth grader. Because the young student is autistic, it took a while before she became comfortable with the Staples girls. Once she did, the friendship bloomed.
Zoe and Olivia went nearly every Sunday to the girl's home. They watched movies, played Wii, cooked and took her to the beach and restaurants. Wherever they were and whatever they did, they talked. The teenagers helped her with social skills, boosting her confidence and self-esteem.
How did they know what to do? "Freida told us a lot," Zoe said. "Really, though, it's just being a friend."
The girl's mother suggested some activities to Zoe and Olivia; soon, the girl began offering ideas too.
"She's so cute," Zoe said. "We really formed a nice bond. During the summer, she texted Olivia and me and said she missed us." This year, when Zoe saw her at an elementary school function, the girl ran over and hugged her.
Zoe said she and Olivia got as much out of the relationship as the girl did. "She's made us better people," Zoe said. "We looked forward to going there. She had so much fun, and so did we. Everyone has something to share and give. This was very mutual."
Zoe is also involved in the "Cool to be Kind" pilot program in Westport. She goes to third- and fourth-grade classrooms spreading the message that it's OK to be nice. Through games and modeled behavior, elementary children learn how to treat peers and others.
"I do it because of what I've gotten out of Circle of Friends," Zoe said. "Now I know what it's like to feel like some of these kids do."
Zoe always has liked learning how children act and react. She hopes for a career in child psychology. Next year at Staples, she'll take the hands-on child study course.
Olivia called her Circle of Friends experience "life changing." She counted down the days to each meeting with her friend. "She had social issues, and her autism made her feel insecure," Olivia said. But she seemed comfortable with Zoe and Olivia, and looked them in the eyes -- something she had not done with many other people.
"Knowing that we could have that effect on one person's life made our time with Circle of Friends indescribable," Olivia added. "Her parents say that she no longer needs Circle of Friends because her social skills have improved greatly. Zoe and I look forward to our next friend this year."
Like her fellow juniors Zoe and Olivia, Sami Schwaeber is an active Circle of Friends participant. At Bedford Middle School, she had a friend with special needs. Through an independent study class at Staples and the Best Buddies club, she learned how to teach and reach special-needs youngsters.
This year, Sami is one of the Westport presidents (each town has two). She's been a Circle of Friends volunteer for four years. She, fellow Staples junior Lesley Matson and their friend -- a high school student -- play basketball, draw, do arts and crafts, pick out her outfits for school, and talk. "A lot of talk," Sami said. "She loves having us come over.
"I've learned so much about being a friend," Sami added. "This is not about their disabilities. It's about their personalities. She is so funny and caring. All three of us have gotten so close. I can't imagine not seeing each other every Sunday."
Sami hopes for a career working with special-needs children. Meanwhile, she hopes more Staples students hear about Circle of Friends. "There's always kids who need friends," she said.