“It’s a lot of joy and it helped defined the character of our family,” Chani Baram said. “It created craziness but also fun.”
Baram grew up with four younger brothers and three were diagnosed with Fragile X syndrome, which is a genetic condition that causes intellectual and learning disabilities in addition to behavioral problems.
According to Baram, her husband Rabbi Zev Baram, as a teen befriended a boy with special needs. He enjoyed the friendship and decided to enrich the lives of children and teens with special needs as an adult. Once married, the couple decided to start the Friendship Circle in the Philadelphia area.
“My husband and I co-founded the program together. We just celebrated our tenth year of programming,” said Baram, who is the program director of the Friendship Circle Philadelphia Region South. Her husband is the executive director.
“My job is to oversee all the programs that happen. Jared and Heather put everything into place. I oversee community fundraising events. I’m also involved in development, donor relations, and newsletters as well.”
Baram says her husband was initially involved with beginning a Friendship Circle in New Jersey. Once they moved to Philadelphia where Baram is originally from, they thought the organization could be a benefit to the community. Baram mentioned that a full year was spent researching the needs of the Jewish community in the Philadelphia area before the Friendship Circle Philadelphia Region South was established. The organization has most of its programs in Montgomery, Delaware, and Bucks counties.
According to Baram, the Friendship Circle was initially started by both her and her husband’s colleagues in Michigan in 1994 as a way to engage teenagers in doing something meaningful.
“It looked at two populations that may have been underserved in certain ways,” said Baram. “Teenagers who have a lot of energy and can do a lot of good things but don’t necessarily always choose to do that with their time, and families who have children with special needs who really need a lot of support and so that initial Friendship Circle really helped come up with that formula of let’s introduce these populations to one another and they can both really gain from their interactions with one another.”
According to the Corporation for Community and National Service, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Independent Sector, in 2005, 55 percent of youth ages 12 to 18 participate in volunteer activities, and 34 percent of youth who volunteer, say a religious organization was the main organization with which they volunteer. As a Jewish based organization, the Friendship Circle is a great example of this statistic. Volunteer coordinator of the Philadelphia area Friendship Circle Jared Pashko works with the teenage volunteers so they know how to deal with Friendship Circle friends in various situations when volunteering and help them feel comfortable in the different programs offered.
“We have different volunteer categories. We have our adult volunteers who act as group leaders or specialists in various activities. We have our young adult volunteers who volunteer with young adults with special needs as well as act as group leaders,” Pashko said. “We have our teenage volunteers and a variety of programs they can partake in.”
“Friends at Home is a program where teens hang out at the house of the individual with special needs for an hour a week and have fun with them,” Pashko said. “Sunday Circle is a program held on Sunday for activities that teens rotate through in one on one buddy pairs.”
In preparation to volunteer as a teen, sixth and seventh graders can participate in the six-week Mitzvah Volunteer Program to learn how to conduct themselves as volunteers. All volunteers and friends of the Friendship Circle get involved by word-of-mouth through neighbors, friends, and family.
“For our program it’s really about socialization and friendship and being part of a community. It’s not education-based,” Baram said. “So sometimes people who kind of fit under the umbrella of special needs may have academic struggles but may be fine socially. They’re probably not coming to Friendship Circle. It’s really self-identifying. Ninety percent of people in Friendship Circle are on the autistic spectrum, but we have people with other diagnoses. We don’t ask for a diagnosis. That is important to us.”
According to the Center for Disease Control’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, in 2014, 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder. It is the fastest growing serious disability disorder in the U.S.. The friends of the Friendship Circle are an example of how prevalent autism is in American society.
Running a non-profit organization that helps so many people isn’t cheap. According to the 2014 Friendship Circle annual report, the organization raised almost $450,000 and most of it is obtained through donations, however almost $440,000 is spent a year and almost 80 percent goes toward programs. The yearly fundraising events like the Circle Gala and the Philly Friendship Walk account for 77 percent of the donations. The rest comes from private donations, corporate sponsors, and grants.
“It comes from the community’s generosity,” Baram said.
According to Giving USA 2015: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2014, Americans donated an estimated $358.38 billion to charity in 2014. The Friendship Circle is a world-wide organization in 79 different locations that are independently run and if people continue to be generous, the organization can grow even more to help those with special needs.
“Every community has adapted it in their own way to their own community. I think one of the successes we see here in Philadelphia is that it is really a community building thing,” Baram said. “I was just on the phone with one of our volunteers and he said ‘I want the organization to grow. I love the personal feel. People know me and I’m encouraged. I don’t want you to get too big and loose that.’ I think that’s one of the things we’ve been able to be successful with here.