Circle squares with friendship need

By Jonathan Kalmus, October 19, 2011
Avital Rose makes succah decorations with Brookvale’s Devorah Abrams

Avital Rose makes succah decorations with Brookvale’s Devorah Abrams

A British branch of a charity which claims to be world's fastest-growing Jewish organisation for youngsters with special needs is looking to raise £100,000 to expand in Manchester.

The Chabad-affiliated Friendship Circle encourages teenage volunteers to provide social activities. It operates in 79 locations across the globe,including China. The 80th is being established in Edgware.

Manchester's first UK branch received charitable status a little over a year ago and now involves 80 volunteers socialising weekly with up to 70 young people with special needs. This week, an African-themed succah party complete with bongo workshop augmented the charity's other regular activities in three locations.

The aim is to raise awareness that people with disabilities - from the wheelchair-bound to those with mental health and genetic disorders - need a social life as much as anyone else.

Director Mimi Lyons, 35, left a city-centre recruitment consultancy to spearhead the charity. She and a small paid team now work with north Manchester's major Jewish special-needs institutions, Langdon and Brookvale. Another co-ordinator organises Shabbat meals at host families and there is £500 a week to fund volunteers taking service users for coffee, a night out or a nail and beauty pamper session. But the focus now is on south Manchester, where there are no Jewish special -needs organisations - although the Federation of Jewish Services, Manchester's largest Jewish welfare charity, does provide respite care assistance.

"The difference with us is that we are about the social side, using non-paid volunteers to create a social life for the person," Mrs Lyons explained. "Friendship is everything.

"Having a nice circle of friends has an immense effect. We've already been approached by five families in south Manchester who have special-needs children.

"Starting next week, we will have 19-year-old Michaela Labaton, a dedicated volunteer co-ordinator, there to grow our volunteer base. The whole thing with south Manchester is we need to recruit volunteers as we need a lot of stuff going on. We are a religious organisation but volunteers come from across the community and we are particularly looking for teenagers and students to help."

Alayne Levy, whose 22-year-old daughter Hannah was born with Down's syndrome, said a Friendship Circle in south Manchester "would undoubtedly be a huge support to families who have children or teenagers who are socially isolated due to their physical and learning disabilities.

"Hannah has enjoyed cooking and craft activities, days out, parties and Shabbat meals. The Friendship Circle has greatly enriched her Jewish social life and we are so grateful for their genuine kindness."

Last updated: 12:29pm, October 19 2011