One of the harder things about being a parent to a preteen with special needs is playdates–or lack thereof. Due to his specific needs, I can't just drop him off. Instead, I end up hosting playdates and doing all of the work. And frankly, most of his peers without special needs don't really like the idea of a playdate anymore. They just go around by themselves, something my son isn't ready to do.
But I don't want my son to miss out on valuable social interactions. Playdates help him forge relationships and learn typical social cues. That's why I'm so glad I found The Friendship Circle, a nonprofit organization that pairs teen volunteers with children with special needs for fun and friendship.
There are around 80 chapters of The Friendship Circle that serve the special needs community throughout the U.S. and even abroad. In NYC, there are chapters in Chelsea, on the Upper East Side and in Brooklyn. (My experiences have all been at the Chelsea center.)
While The Friendship Circle NYC is run by the Jewish organization Chabad, families of all backgrounds are welcome. Its signature program is Friends at Home, during which a typical needs teen volunteer spends time playing with your special needs child in your home once a week for free. This year the org has more volunteers than ever in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but match-ups aren't guaranteed. It all depends on availability and location.
Even if Friends at Home doesn't end up working out for you, The Friendship Circle offers other socializing programs for children with special needs including a one-week summer camp at its Chelsea headquarters that boasts one-on-one volunteer-to-child ratios. On top of the social benefits, it offers special needs kids a chance to participate in summer activities like swimming, sports, art, music and field trips.
There's also Sunday Circle, a free drop-off program that meets the first Sunday of every month from 1 to 3pm in Chelsea. Children with special needs get to enjoy music, science, cooking and art activities, as well as complimentary snacks. Again, teen volunteers lead all the fun and there's an emphasis on socializing.
The Friendship Circle is also currently raising funds to open The Friendship Village, a 25,000-square-foot interactive indoor play town where children with special needs can practice everyday skills and make new friends. There are already Villages in other U.S. cities and it sounds pretty cool and more role-play oriented than the usual special needs sensory gyms.
For more information about any of the above programs, or to register a child with special needs or a teen volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 646-820-1066.
Find out about more programs for children with special needs in our Special Needs Guide.