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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, January 5, 2012
The Friendship Circle includes any child
GUILDERLAND Simone, a delicate wisp of a girl, nestled in the arms of a teenage volunteer and watched a plastic ball roll across the floor. Inside were the ingredients to make ice cream.
Nearby, nine-year-old Messiah took a more active approach. He held the hand of his mentor and reached for the ball with his other hand, before he laughed and sent it spinning back across the floor.
The group of kids, each paired with a mentor, played under the watchful eye of Libra Andrusier.
In September of 2004, Andrusier started the 85th chapter of the Friendship Circle, a national not-for-profit organization that provides programs and support to families with children who have special needs.
Andrusier, 33, who moved to Albany, from Brooklyn, was familiar with the program, since her family used it when she was growing up, because her late brother had special needs. He was in a coma for seven years and stayed at home with his family, where many volunteers and friends visited.
“I remember, as a child, what a tremendous thing it did for our family. That is actually my inspiration to choose this kind of work,” she said. She has a picture of her brother on her desk that she sees each day as she works at the Friendship Circle.
She now understands the dynamics of parenting as well, since she has six children herself.
The core program pairs the special-needs children with teen mentors, who visit them in their homes, and also provides a winter camp, holiday programs, parental respite evenings, and day trips.
“Everyone gains so much; parents get a break and the knowledge that someone else loves their kids just for being who they are, the kids get acceptance, and the volunteers learn patience and tolerance,” Andrusier said.
When the program started, there were eight volunteers, and now, according to Andrusier, there are 75 volunteers helping as many as 45 families.
During the Capital Region program’s winter camp, held in Colonie during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, the kids made ice cream, went rock climbing, practiced gymnastics, and visited Chuck E. Cheese.
A selfless thing
“It’s definitely a selfless thing, when you put aside your time and dedicate it to someone else,” said Raizel Nemtzob, a high school student who volunteered at the winter camp.
Nemtzob visits 10-year-old Josh Ulrich’s home once a week, and calls her time with him a “one-hour play date.” She helps him with his homework, or does whatever activity interests him.
Ulrich, a student at Westmere Elementary School, called the camp and his time with Nemtzob each week “really nice” and said he loved the “fun activities.”
Elyse Wohl, a student at Niskayuna High School, is in her third year of volunteering with the Friendship Circle, and said she thinks the program is more fulfilling for the volunteers than it is for the kids.
“I get a lot out of it. You can see how you can really make a big difference in someone’s life,” said Wohl. The little girl she visits each week has taken to waiting at the window for Wohl’s arrival, and then running down the driveway to greet her.
Mushky Rubin, a Guilderland resident, began doing one-on-one visits with an autistic boy several years ago, and has kept it up since then, despite the fact that the boy is unable to communicate verbally.
“We still get to play and have fun, and I learn a lot from the kids, including patience and tolerance,” said Rubin. “Seeing the kids be so happy with the simple things, like one toy, it makes you think.”
Andrusier said that is a common trend with the children and volunteers, as many of the children involved with the program are autistic and can’t communicate very well verbally.
“It doesn’t matter,” Andrusier said. “Even when they can’t communicate, they know that someone is there for them and enjoying them and accepting them.”
She relayed the story of a little boy who came to the first day of Winter Camp and was timid and withdrawn. The second day, as he was playing with one of the volunteers, he randomly walked over and gave her a big hug.
“He couldn’t tell her thank you or that he was enjoying her company, but he showed her,” said Andrusier.
Though many of the children in the program are autistic, that is not the criteria for participating.
“We don’t ask parents for a diagnosis of their child or anything like that,” said Andrusier. “Basically, if a parent tells us that their child needs a friend, they are welcome in our program.” It is all about acceptance and inclusion, she said.
“Knowing that I am making someone else happy, and I’m enjoying myself too, it’s a win-win,” said Rubin.
“Overall, this program is a positive, happy thing,” concluded Andrusier.
For more information on the Friendship Circle, visit capitalfriends.org, or contact Liba Andrusier at email@example.com.
By Anne Hayden