You Got a Friend

Essays and experiences from The Friendship Circle of the South Bay

  • Category
    Homes
  • Written by
    Michele Garber

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once famously wrote, “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” Those sage words from one of America’s greatest poets embody the quintessential principle at the heart of The Friendship Circle of the South Bay, a non-profit organization that pairs student volunteers with children and young adults with special needs. 

The Friendship Circle is dedicated to providing local special needs youth with a safe, relaxed and fun environment where they can experience the pure joy of unconditional friendship and acceptance. The organization focuses its efforts on reaching two distinct groups of youth in the community: philanthropic students with an enthusiasm and desire to volunteer and local children and young adults with special needs. 

It offers an array of programs centered on academics, athletics and socialization in the three most significant parts of a child’s life: home, school and community. “The majority of our programs are provided at no cost to any child with special needs,” explains Jason Flentye, director of The Friendship Circle of the South Bay. 

"Siena is a person who you can always count on to brighten your day with a little laugh followed by a huge grin.”

The Friendship Circle of the South Bay is a branch of The Friendship Circle International, a global organization with chapters in 80 cities and eight countries. Originally founded in Detroit in 1994, each chapter is completely independent in operations, programming and funding. But all chapters share a core tenet—that every child is precious and deserving of friendship, acceptance and unconditional love. 

The Friendship Circle of the South Bay was founded in 2005 by friends Yossi Mintz, executive director of the Beach Cities Chabad, and Michael Greenberg, president of SKECHERS. The two men envisioned taking the essential credo of The Friendship Circle and customizing it to better address the specific needs of our community. 

Not only would they offer the essential one-on-one mentoring characteristically in place throughout branches of The Friendship Circle; they would also broaden its availability to provide access for children and young adults with special needs of all ages. They would widen the volunteer base to a larger age range, and they would offer programs that address the needs of the siblings and parents of youth with special needs as well.

The Friendship Circle of the South Bay opened modestly in 2005 with eight special needs children and 22 teen volunteers meeting once a month. Within a year, The Friendship Circle gained momentum, and several of the volunteer teens took the group to the next level by establishing school-sanctioned clubs at Mira Costa, Palos Verdes and Redondo Union high schools. The organization also expanded the frequency of activities and availability of programs offered.

By 2008, The Friendship Circle was in full swing. Then the recession hit, affecting the budgets of all philanthropies and local school systems. With huge school budget cuts looming and donations to The Friendship Circle and other non-profits waning, something needed to be done. 

Yossi and Michael were resolved to keep the doors open, so they came up with an ingenious idea to supplement fundraising. SKECHERS would partner with other corporate sponsors and orchestrate a walk from the Manhattan Beach Pier to the Hermosa Beach Pier and back. 

"Volunteering for The Friendship Circle is one of the true joys in my life and has taught me the true meaning of both friendship and acceptance.”

This event would benefit not just The Friendship Circle but the education funds of the six South Bay school districts: El Segundo, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, Palos Verdes, Redondo Beach and Torrance. This funding would provide needed supplies and equipment, prevent teacher layoffs and maintain smaller class sizes.

In October 2009, the first annual SKECHERS Friendship Walk took place with 2,000 participants and raised an impressive $220,000. The walk was warmly embraced by the community, and with each subsequent year, participation and fundraising exponentially increased. By 2012, the fourth year of the walk, there were 10,000 participants, and the walk raised $756,000. 

This year’s fifth annual SKECHERS Friendship Walk, scheduled for Sunday, October 27, anticipates more than 10,000 participants. With support from sponsoring partner Nickelodeon plus an impressive roster of other corporate sponsors (including Zappos.com, Ross, Foot Locker, Body Glove, Chevron, Marshalls, Wells Fargo and DirectTV) the goal to raise $1 million to benefit The Friendship Circle and local school district education funds is within reach. 

As Michael Greenberg explains, “We had no idea when we started this walk in 2009 that it would inspire so many to come out and support children with special needs. It’s an incredible testament to our community. The support of this community and our sponsors means very much to me personally. I’m extremely grateful and will continue to do all I can to better the lives of children.”

Michael and the Greenberg family established the SKECHERS Foundation in 2010 to invest in organizations dedicated to improving education, empowering disadvantaged youth and supporting individuals with special needs. 

As a result of the generosity of the SKECHERS Foundation and the explosive success of the SKECHERS Friendship Walk, The Friendship Circle of the South Bay has been able to continue their outreach in the community, increasing their positive and swift impact. 

Friendship Circle clubs have opened at elementary and middle school campuses as well as high schools throughout the local school system, including public, charter and private schools. There are currently Friendship Circle clubs on 25 area campuses.

Beyond the rapid campus expansion, The Friendship Circle has grown in membership and volunteer participation. There are now approximately 1,200 volunteers, ages 7 and up, and a comparable number of members, ages 3 to 25. “Because of our amazing volunteers, we have never turned a child with special needs away,” says Jason Flentye.

The Friendship Circle has added an array of programs available to its members and their families, and it has broadly extended its monthly schedule. The non-profit now offers 25 different programs per month and operates those programs six days per week throughout the entire year, with some of the busiest times during the summer and winter school breaks.

Among the comprehensive variety of programs and adventures are the Birthday Club, Movie Night, Sports Night, Life Skills Adventures and the newly launched Gotfriends Summer Day Camp. There are also programs specifically designed for the members’ siblings and parents, including support groups, seminars and even a parent date night.  

For Miin-Jiuan “Minnie” Tsay, a senior at Redondo Union, volunteering at The Friendship Circle and becoming a buddy to Tyler Carron was especially personal, because Minnie’s older sister also has special needs. Minnie has been an active volunteer in The Friendship Circle for four years. 

"At The Friendship Circle, we want everyone to be accepted. We say, ‘You’re not a boy with autism. You’re not a boy with Down syndrome. You’re just a boy.’”— Jason Flentye, director of The Friendship Circle of the South Bay

She always participates in the Friendship Walk, the Birthday Club, and this year she was a volunteer at Camp Gotfriends. Minnie especially enjoys spending time with Tyler. 

“Tyler is so fun to be with,” explains Minnie. “He’s a jokester and loves to pretend and kid around. He’s always pretending to fall down, and he likes to imitate animals. His newest thing is every time I see him, he announces, ‘It’s my birthday!’ He’s such a prankster.”

Perhaps the most significant program of The Friendship Circle is the Friends at Home initiative. Volunteers are paired with member buddies, and each volunteer visits their buddy at their home once a week. Through this exceptional initiative, strong friendships and deeper connections are formed, providing special needs members the opportunity to relax, have fun and be themselves in a safe, familiar environment.  

For children with special needs, forming connections with others and making friends can be an enormous challenge. The friendships forged with their volunteer buddies provide an opportunity for these children and young adults to experience the true meaning of friendship and the immeasurable joy of unconditional love. 

They can develop greater confidence and important social skills that they can in turn apply to other aspects of their daily lives. The program also provides families a much-needed respite from daily caregiving.

On the surface, Friends at Home seems most beneficial to the children with special needs. But in reality, the volunteer mentors and the families of the members get just as much—if not more—benefit from the program. A universal theme conveyed by Friendship Circle volunteers of all ages is how being a buddy has tremendously and personally impacted and enhanced each of their lives. 

Not every friendship came easily. Some of the volunteers had to be patient and diligent in forming their friendships. Yet whether the buddies instantly clicked or took a bit more time and effort to form a bond, the outcomes are universally the same. Both the youth with special needs and the volunteer students are forever changed for the better by being a part of the Friends at Home relationship. 

The Friendship Circle student volunteers are proud of their experiences and want to share their stories with others. They recognize that anyone can experience the same incalculable gratification by volunteering. Not surprisingly, existing volunteers are often the best recruiters of new volunteers. 

Sharing the inspirational stories of The Friendship Circle encourages others to participate in the walk or support the organization. The Friendship Circle and the SKECHERS Foundation sponsor an annual project called My First Friend, in which several pairs of Friendship Circle buddies are selected to participate. Each volunteer buddy writes an essay on how they feel about their buddy and how taking part in Friends at Home has affected their lives. 

To complement the essays, photos are taken of each buddy pair. These essays and photos are featured on the SKECHERS Friendship Walk website to highlight the enormous benefit and impact that both volunteering for The Friendship Circle and participating in the walk ultimately has on the community.  

 

Joseph & Daniel 

Daniel McKeown, age 15 and a sophomore at Redondo Union High, has been a Friendship Circle volunteer for a year and a half. He was paired with his buddy, Joseph Platten, after the two hit it off at a club event. Daniel describes Joseph as “a great kid with a great attitude.” Daniel describes volunteering for The Friendship Circle: “It’s a win-win. It’s a lot of fun, and of course you make friends. But it’s more than that. I encourage other kids to join The Friendship Circle and learn what it’s like to bring a smile to a kid with special needs. You really get something back.”

An essay by Daniel McKeown, a sophomore at Redondo Union High, about his Friendship Circle buddy, Joseph Platten: 

I met my friend Joseph at our high school’s Lunch Club. Joseph is a bright young man who is always happy to see me. Joseph always makes my day, and I believe I make his day as well. I truly feel that having relationships like these are really important for teens like myself. My relationship with Joseph helped me appreciate the values of life and made me be more open-minded.

I know that Joseph gets a great benefit from our relationship, but I think I receive just as much out of it as he does. I feel that he has fun with me, and he teaches me about friendship and kindness. Joseph and the entire Friendship Circle have made me a better person. 

I’ve gained so much knowledge from being involved with The Friendship Circle. I feel that I have transformed from an ignorant kid to a bright young man. I have also realized that relationships like these don’t just come to you. Instead you have to go out and create them yourself. I want to thank Joseph for the great lessons he has taught me; he’s changed my life!

 

 

Sonak & Christopher  

An essay by Christopher Reiger, a senior at Palos Verdes High, about his buddy, Sonak Tank, a student at Palos Verdes Peninsula High:

My experience with The Friendship Circle and the SKECHERS Friendship Walk has been awesome! I started volunteering three years ago, and for the past two years I’ve had the opportunity to be on the Teen Advisory Board. Through giving my time, I’ve met so many great people, but one person who really stood out was my buddy, Sonak.

Sonak has the courage every guy wants. He’ll approach any girl and strike up a conversation. His courage and outgoing personality have helped me to become a more open and outgoing individual. Because of Sonak, I now find it easier to approach people and am no longer nervous to make new friends.

 

 

Siena & Liana

A letter by Ella Baxter, an American Martyrs graduate, about her Friendship Circle buddy, Alyssa Rodriguez, a student at Richmond Street School:

When I first met Alyssa, she could not have been less excited to see me. She sat at the top of the slide and ignored me. The next time I saw her, she acknowledged my presence with an emphatic, “Go away!” I walked back a few steps and sat down, looking at her. She stared back at me, clearly annoyed.  

This same routine occurred at the beginning of our next visit, but midway through she seemed to give in. Alyssa motioned for me to come closer. Then when I was in arms reach, she reached out and touched my arm. “You’re it!” she cried, then burst into laughter. 

This has become our typical greeting. Alyssa will notice me walking toward her, come give me a hug, then run away laughing and always glancing back to make sure I’m behind her.

Alyssa has taught me a lot about persistence. If I had walked away when she ignored me, I would have never gotten to know Alyssa and her personality. I never would have learned how she loves to play basketball and act out scenes from her favorite TV shows. I would have never had the chance to help her across the monkey bars or push her on the swings.

Being friends with Alyssa is not always easy, but whenever I’m with her, I am so thankful that I worked to become friends with her—because she is one of the most spectacular people I know!

 

 

Nick & Jacyln

An essay by Jaclyn Francis, a senior at West High, about her Friendship Circle buddy, Nick Hall, also at West:

I first met Nick in our freshman English class. After injuring my knee over the summer, I hobbled into fourth period in a leg brace on crutches. After failing to be able to pick up my textbooks stored on the bottom shelf of the teacher’s bookcase, I stood there feeling quite embarrassed. Immediately Nick jumped out of his seat, grabbed them and placed them on my desk. For the remainder for the year, my books were always there waiting for me when I arrived to class.

Nick and I have been amazing friends since then … eating lunch together each day, hanging out and supporting each other during our lowest moments. He has such a kind and gentle heart; his thoughtfulness is perhaps his greatest strength. During our freshman year, we joined our campus’ West Buddies Club, which later became part of The Friendship Circle. 

Growing up, I personally had very few friends and was often picked on for being hearing impaired. Volunteering for The Friendship Circle is one of the true joys in my life and has taught me the true meaning of both friendship and acceptance. We currently live in a society in which being different is looked down upon. The Friendship Circle has taught me to celebrate those differences and enables both members and volunteers to truly be themselves.

For more information on the SKECHERS Friendship Walk, please visit skechers
friendshipwalk.com.
For more information on The Friendship Circle of the South Bay, please visit 
gotfriends.com.
To read more Friendship Circle essays, visit us online at 
OurSouthbay.com.
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