The Friendship Circle in New York City is an ingenious program where teenage volunteers spend time with children with special needs. The organization has given these adolescent philanthropists a new perspective on life and other important qualities as they become informed and more tolerant young adults.

In 1994, The Friendship Circle started in Detroit, Michigan, with eight volunteers and three children with special needs. As the number of volunteers increased, branches began to spread all over the country. The Manhattan branch opened in 2009 when a large number of people realized how important it was for New York City to have such a dedicated program.

Kids with special needs who participate in the organization’s programming develop friendships with peers close to their age, something that can be challenging for those with disabilities. Participants also learn how to interact socially with members of society.

To learn more about the program, go to or e-mail the organization’s coordinator Dina Shanowitz at [email protected]. To attend a Sunday Circle session, visit the facility at 121 W. 19th St. in Manhattan.

Volunteers at The Friendship Circle become role models to their special friends. At the same time, the humanitarians watch these children grow and improve in areas of difficulty. These are lessons and experiences that cannot be taught in any classroom.

There are two different programs at the Manhattan facility for teen volunteers. The first is Friends At Home in which volunteers go one day a week to the children’s homes and spend time in their environment. At the homes, volunteers play games, talk and read books to the kids.

The second program is Sunday Circle, a monthly meeting in which parents drop off their children to a center where volunteers and professionals await the kids’ arrival. For two hours, children with special needs are paired with volunteers and partake in an array of activities, such as decorating cookies, dancing, playing soccer and creating balloon art.

All sorts of people participate at The Friendship Circle. Some have autism and learn how to develop skills in various facets of their lives. Others on the spectrum learn to be more social and connect more deeply with others. One thing all participants have in common is that they are optimistic— even when faced with adversities.

My experience with The Friendship Circle has changed my life forever. It has made me a more compassionate and tolerant person. After meeting numerous children on the spectrum, I’ve learned that what some people call a disability others call uniqueness. Disabilities may hold certain children back in some aspects of life. However, with some guidance, like the support found at The Friendship Circle, these kids excel and can become successful at whatever they do.

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