Evening of Recognition, 2016
Hello everyone…my name is Eric Benninghoff and I am currently a senior at Weston High School. I started volunteering for the Circle of Friends about 3 years ago, but my involvement with the organization started long before that.
My older brother, Brian, was part of the program since I was a little kid. Brian is severely autistic, unable to say more than a few simple words. He has lived 20 years in a body he often can't control, yet he perseveres and has the brightest smile of anyone I know. My life growing up with Brian has included both the lowest of lows and the highest of highs.
Despite the fact that Brian steals food from people's plates, swims naked around my friends, and has bitten me, I often refer to him as the most important teacher in my life because of his lessons of sensitivity, patience and perseverance…lessons he has not only shared with me, but with many members of the Circle of Friends community.
The challenges of caring for Brian are far outweighed by the rewards. One afternoon I was singing "Jingle Bells" because it always makes him smile. I accidentally paused near the end of one line. I heard Brian mutter something. I paused again intentionally, and realized Brian was filling in the correct lyrics. In that moment, I realized how much more Brian understands than we give him credit for.
I always had so much respect for the volunteers that worked with my brother…spending hours with him on hikes, playing with his favorite flash cards, and building towers of legos. They often inspired me to make the most of my time with Brian and made me begin to consider joining the Circle of Friends organization myself. But in all honesty, I never volunteered for this organization when I was younger despite urgent requests to do so because I felt like I was living with special needs every day, and did not need any more exposure to it.
My life took a major turn when Brian left home to go to boarding school in Massachusetts 2 years ago. I was heartbroken when he left, yet it freed me in unexpected ways. I couldn’t help but maintain some sort of connection with the special needs community…Autism had always been a part of my life. It was at this point that I started volunteering much more actively with Circle of Friends…and I have cherished every minute of it.
Working with children and young adults other than my brother has been an enlightening experience for me. The people I spend time with at Circle of Friends have a diversity of conditions, but more importantly, they have an amazing diversity of personality. While my friend Rebecca will exchange many jokes and laughs with me about our days at school and work, Hillary will chat with me all about her favorite Beatles songs.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I showed up a little late to a Sunday circle baking session at the temple. When I arrived, I was told that the group had just taken a group photograph in the kitchen, and that the first words that came out of Hillary’s mouth after the picture were: “You better send that to Eric right away…he would really like that.” Another time at Sunday Circle, before Rebecca and I exchanged our secret hand shake and drove home, she told me that I was a really good friend and that she really enjoyed hanging out with me.
These are the moments of Circle of Friends where you take a step back and really reflect on the special opportunity you have to be part of such a warm community of people. These are the moments when you are reminded of the incredibly special and thoughtful souls within all of the individuals that play, work, and laugh together at Circle of Friends events.
This organization does some of the most impactful work of any group I have ever been a part of. It has helped me develop some of the most important relationships I have experienced. Please help support Circle of Friends in any way possible, so that it can continue doing the phenomenal work it has been doing for over 10 years.
Joining this organization is a decision I will never regret. Being around so many caring, fun and kind people within the Circle of Friends has taught me the value and importance within every person, no matter how different they are. And for that, I will always be grateful. Thank you.
Evening of Recognition, 2016
When I started working with Circle of Friends in 7th grade, I went in with the expectation that I was there to help other people. That was the whole point of the mitzvah project, right? But after I got the required 18 hours for my bat mitzvah, I continued going to Circle of Friends. I probably continued because Freida’s gentle and pointed encouragement, or maybe I was inspired by Susan’s warm smile and obvious commitment. 6 years later, I’m still baking cookies and doing arts & crafts every month at Sunday Circle. Susan recently asked me why I stayed with Circle of Friends for all these years. I gave it some thought, and I realized the main reason was because I had gained as much as I had given. It turns out that while I expected to help other people, the people at Circle of Friends also helped me. And the person who has given me the most is my friend Chloe.
I met Chloe when I started doing Home with Friends. To be honest, I was a little nervous to be set up in a one-on-one friendship. I wasn’t sure if I was ready or if I would do a good job. But with Freida’s encouragement and promises of the “sweetest little girl”, I felt like I could do it, and agreed to weekly home visits.
The first day I went to Chloe’s house, I rang the doorbell, and was immediately greeted by a smiling little girl. We introduced ourselves, she gave me a big hug, and then dragged me to the playroom. I quickly learned that she loved swimming, painting, and most of all, horses.
Since that first meeting, I have spent time with Chloe every week. It’s amazing to me how much a person can grow in just 3 years. I met Chloe when she was very young—just 7 years old. Throughout our time together, I have watched her blossom into a makeup lover, a horseback riding champion, a budding textaholic, and an Olympic swimmer. I’ve also watched her older brother Eddie mature into a kind, smart high-schooler, and I’ve seen her little brother Ben grow out of his diapers and into a total ladies man.
But I have also seen myself grow because of my relationship with Chloe. She has pushed me, and sometimes forced me, to try new things. Her constant positive energy and happiness have rubbed off on me in the best ways. I remember one time we went out to breakfast together, and she uninhibitedly approached every other kid in the restaurant to say hi and make new friends. And when I introduced her to the girls who will step into my shoes when I’m off at college next year, she greeted them with a big hug and warmly included them in our activities. Seeing her ease in approaching new people inspired me to be just that friendly and outgoing. This is just one example of the countless ways Chloe has pushed me to be a better version of myself. She has taught me to be more kind, patient, and compassionate. Through Chloe, I have gained a more loving heart.
Chloe throughout the years has also been my constant in the midst of all my teenage melodrama. If I got a bad grade on a test, had a fight with a friend, or had some stupid boy drama, going to the Kiev’s on the weekend has provided me with a little escape. Chloe’s house has been a kind of a bubble, a place where I could forget all of my worries and have fun with someone separate from those other, more stressful parts of my life. With Chloe, I can fully focus on doing the coolest jump on the trampoline or perfecting Chloe’s manicures and lipstick. Some people wish they could be 17 again, but 17 is overrated. I feel lucky that I got the chance to be 10 again, even if just for an hour each week.
When Susan approached me about speaking tonight, I was honored. I was excited to have the opportunity to share such a positive experience with all of you, and I knew I would have a lot to say. I thought, “This speech is going to be a piece of cake!” But if I’m being honest, it took me a while to actually sit down and write this speech. For some reason, every time I tried to think about what I wanted to say, I got this feeling of anxiety, similar to the feeling I got when writing my college applications. But soon enough, the cause of my problem became clear. I couldn’t bring myself to put my thoughts into words because doing so would mean reflecting on my time with Chloe, and reflecting on my time with Chloe implies that it’s ending. And though I’m not actually leaving for a couple months and I won’t be going very far, it won’t be the same next year, and I wasn’t ready to confront that. I’m still not ready. But despite the changes that will be happening in the next few months, I know that Chloe and I will stay close. She has become the little sister I never had, and the Kievs have become my second family. I feel so lucky to have known such a sweet and wonderful girl, and I can’t wait to see her continue to grow into a sweet and wonderful adult.
Evening of Recognition, May 2012
Good evening. Thank you all so much for giving me the opportunity to speak to you about what my family has learned from circle of friends.
A quick bit of background about our family and what brought us to become a part of the Circle. My husband, Ira, and I live in Weston and have three children. Our daughter, Jessica, is 8, and we have two sons, Dwight, who is 7 and Patton, who is 5. Patton was diagnosed about three years ago at the age of two with autism spectrum disorder.
One dimension of his disability is how learning to make friends and keep friends is extremely difficult for Patton. Yet teaching the skills necessary to make and keep friends has a significant lifelong impact for people with autism. From a therapeutic standpoint, having friends can buffer the impact of stressful events, correlates positively with self-esteem and negatively with anxious and depressive symptoms. Our family was faced with a paradoxical challenge. We desperately wanted to promote Patton’s social development, yet the opportunities in which these activities typically take place present many challenges for Patton.
It was suggested that I contact Frieda to discuss a potential relationship for Patton.
My husband and I were looking for a friend who would be extremely patient and easygoing and someone that we knew would devote the time and attention to develop a true friendship and consistently act as a positive role model for our son. We were introduced to Jillian Pecoreillo who immediately fell in love with Patton (of course we knew that would happen) and we are proud to say Jillian and Patton have been having weekly playdates for over three years. So began the incredibly challenging journey to true friendship for Patton which we are proud to say he has conquered beautifully.
In Jillian, Patton sees a playmate, someone to go to the backyard and run around with him, play with his buses and trains, and of course give him lots of tickles.
This friendship has lasted about three years and we are going to miss Jillian terribly when she goes off to college in the fall, but we know that she will be back to visit and the friendship will endure. A little over a year ago we recruited Faizaan Siddiqui as another friend for Patton and we are proud to say they both look forward to their time together with lots of chases around the backyard.
When I originally thought about what I would share tonight with you, it was about our family’s life with autism, and our lifelong journey to recovery for Patton. Tonight is not about autism and it’s not about our autism.
Tonight is about celebrating friendship without any boundaries and how Rabbi Hecht and Frieda galvanized our community to give their volunteers the tools to give selflessly. I am inspired by our volunteers dedication to the mission of the circle of friends and I know that you all walk away tonight with a bigger heart than the one you came in the circle with.
A few weeks ago the Weston schools had a half day of school due to parent teacher conferences. All three of our kids had playdates for the afternoon. Dwight had a few boys over and one of the moms came to pick up her son. At that moment, Jillian came by for her playdate with Patton. Patton waited downstairs for Jillian and greeted Jillian with a huge smile and hello and ran upstairs to get started on his playdate with Jillian running after him. The mom was struck “that’s pattons playdate?” she asked. “I thought she’d be littler”.
This was exactly the defining moment of why we were attracted to the circle of friends and why we are involved still. There are no boundaries to circle of friends bonds. In developing friendships, Patton and his friends pushed all boundaries that typically define this relationship. Clearly there were differences between Patton and his friends. Moving outside these social boundaries is what defines real friendship.
Circle of friends has taught me to expand my understanding of friendship and the value of developing relationships without a broader social norm context or a normative boundary.
We are so grateful to our visionaries, Rabbi Hecht and Frieda, for their endless commitment to improving the lives of our kids and humanizing our community with circle of friends. We are honored to be a part of this organization and look forward to sharing many more happy times together. Thank you.
Evening of Recognition May 31, 2015
A few months ago Freida and I were talking about the Gala. I made the suggestion that perhaps she should have a parent talk about their experience with Circle of Friends. I did not mean ME but I could not say no to Frieda Hecht.
I have given a great deal of thought about what I wanted to say to this amazing group of student volunteers. I only have two wishes for this speech: One is to express to these wonderful young men and women what a difference they make in the lives of others and secondly, I hope to get through this speech without crying.
To be a little Freida-like, who always starts with a joke, I am going to begin like this: A mother and a daughter walk into a synagogue with each other but unlike Freida, I will save the ending for later.
First I would like to give you a little background. We had many challenges when Ariel was born. In just a few seconds dreams were dashed and hope was taken away. Thankfully, our family had faith. We began a long journey together and although the road was bumpy, we managed to travel so much further than we ever thought possible. Little by little, and in her own time, Ariel learned how to walk, how to talk and she developed into the beautiful social caring person she is today.
Throughout this journey, we were her family. We were her friends.
When Ariel did start school she loved it. But her experiences growing up were different from most children. She did not have sleepovers, playdates or tons of birthday parties to go to. She had us. We were her family. We were her friends.
Ariel was fortunate to be part of the first religious class for children with special needs at our synagogue. And what an experience it was for her. The day she became a bat mitzvah will remain one of the most special days the Levy family has ever experienced. And how we celebrated. She danced with our family. She danced with our friends.
After high school, Ariel began to go to a workshop program. One day the staff told us about a program that might be nice for Ariel to attend. It was called Circle of Friends. I will never ever forget that first night. We were standing with a group of young men and women who had been at the workshop with Ariel for months. They were standing outside ready to go to Beth Israel for the first time. One by one they looked at each other and said “Are you Jewish? You’re Jewish? I did not know you were Jewish.” Such excitement. And when we arrived at the synagogue we were greeted so warmly; not just me but Ariel as well. Not just Ariel but ALL the others. We danced, we sang, we ate, we talked. Such a time we had. And when it was time to leave, Freida told us she wanted us to meet Rabbi Hecht. On the way to his office, she explained to Ariel that she should not shake hands with the
Rabbi. Ariel only heard the part “Shake hands with the Rabbi.” And when she extended her hand, I froze, but without missing a beat, Rabbi Hecht took her hand. I will never forget that moment as long as I live.
And so for the last 11 years Ariel has been a part of Circle of Friends and Circle of
Friends has been a part of us. It has been a safe and caring place for her, a place she loves. Thank you volunteers for making it all possible. You have given my daughter a community, an extended family. You have given my daughter friendship. If ever you should think twice about what you are doing, just know that you have added immeasurable joy to the lives of others. May your lives be blessed just as you have blessed the lives of others.
Now back to the story. A mother and her daughter walk into a synagogue with each other ------and they walk out with a Circle of Friends.
Colin Baker, Norwalk
Circle of Friends Evening of Recognition
22, April 2018
Hi, I’m Colin Baker, and for the last 6 years I have had the honor to be a Circle of Friends volunteer.
It seems to me, that I was destined to be involved with Circle of Friends. My older sister was also a volunteer and my house is a two minute walk from Freida’s. My High school, Norwalk High, shares a property line with Temple Beth Israel. I stand here today with massive insight into what it takes to be a friend, and more importantly, what it means to have one. I am graduating this spring, and will be attending college. Over the last few months, I have come to the unfortunate realization that my time with Circle is coming to an end. I can stand here today and say that I am profoundly grateful for the people, experiences, and opportunities Circle of Friends has exposed me to. My time with this organization has truly shown me that you never know where you’re going to make your next friend.
I became involved with Circle of Friends to fill the mitzvah requirement for my Bar Mitzvah. I remember walking into my first Sunday Circle Teen Scene excited and a little nervous too. Over the course two hours packed with arts and crafts, baking, sports, and music, I came to a realization: being a volunteer at Circle of Friends was hard work. I was paired with a boy named Josh. Over the two hours, I found myself assisting Josh with tasks I waltzed through in my own life. Josh needed assistance with actions I found simple, such as walking, drinking, and washing his hands. At the end of the session, Josh gave me a huge smile and waved goodbye. It was at this moment that I came to another realization: Circle of Friends is extremely rewarding. I find no greater joy than playing catch with my friend Eli, talking to my friend Lauren about her family, or making music with my friend Steffe. Building a meaningful relationship with someone who truly needs a friend is an indescribable feeling. Although my time with Circle of Friends is coming to a close, I know that the lessons I have learned will stay with me for the rest of my life.
My experiences with Circle have made me privy to the myriad of people who are in desperate need of a friend. After overhearing a peer named Ryan in my english class with aspergers mention that “being laughed at doesn’t matter because I don’t have any friends,” I decided to sit with him at lunch the next day. Little did I know that we both shared an affinity for politics and he actually needed a co-star on a podcast he was creating. We have our first segment coming out tomorrow and are looking to continue recording for the remainder of the school year. I would’ve never ever exposed myself to Ryan if I had not volunteered at Circle. I am proud to say that I have made a new friend.
While I was contemplating my departure from Circle a few months back, I began thinking of ways I could give back to the organization that has impacted me in such a positive way. Luckily for me, a blessing fell into my lap. I was asked to run my school’s annual dodgeball tournament fundraiser. For those of you who don’t know, over the last 9 years, the Norwalk High School dodgeball tournament has managed to raise over $50,000 for various charities. As this year’s chairman, I was able to select a charity I was passionate about, and it was a no-brainer for me to choose Circle of Friends. As a school, on March 14, we were able to raise almost $4,000 for the “Crumb Together Bakery.”
Over the last 6 years, I have grown immeasurably due to lessons I have learned through Circle of Friends. I have come to appreciate the small blessings in my life and learned not to take things for granted. I now understand the importance of inclusion and making sure every person, with no exceptions, has a friend. I am positive that I would not even be half the man I am today if I had never joined Circle of Friends. Thank you.
Circle of Friends Evening of Recognition
April 22, 2018
Hello, my name is Juliana Koller and I am a senior at Weston High School.
Circle of Friends was a part of my life, long before I became a volunteer. When I was 6 , my 13–year-old sister Katherine began Home with Friends. When Katherine graduated from High School my sister Emily took over. And then, Emily graduated, and I finally got my turn.
I went from hearing about their playdates and helping them plan fun games to play with their friend, to doing it myself! I was 13 at the time I started home with friends, and just one playdate in, I finally understood what my sisters loved about circle of friends. We would have so much fun playing games, doing science experiments, and painting nails. Seeing my friend smile when I brought a new game, or hearing her describe with such enthusiasm her day at school made me want to have the same appreciation for life that she did.
One of my favorite memories during home with friends was going to the memorial day fair, I remember running from ride to ride to make sure we got to as many as possible in the hours we were there. It was such a relaxing happy and funny time, and I will always value these memories with her.
Circle of Friends is a mitzvah, not just for our friends, but also for its volunteers. I am currently the co-president of the Circle of Friends Club at Weston High School, organizing school -wide events to raise our classmates’ awareness about disabilities, building a more inclusive community at school.
We encourage students to make sure everyone has someone to sit with at lunch, and promote kindness all around. We also organize different events for the community classroom at our school. One of my favorites is throwing parties after school, where they can listen to music, dance, do art projects, and just relax and goof around after a long day of learning.
I love working with my school in combination with Circle of Friends, being part of a whole classroom of students filled with joy and love by their teachers, classmates, and Circle of Friends volunteers . Circle of Friends has completely changed my perspective of the world, and I am so fortunate to be a part of such a wonderful community.
I will miss all of the amazing people I have met through Circle of Friends next year at college, but I can’t wait to share the amazing values and lessons I’ve learned with my new friends at Colgate University .
I am so pleased to pass the torch of leadership to next year’s Co-Presidents Rachel Gelfand and Charlotte Glick, and wish for them all of the valuable lessons and experiences Circle of Friends has offered me.
Circle of Friends Evening of Recognition
April 22, 2018
At the beginning of sixth grade I learned about the Circle of Friends organization. My brother had recently begun as a volunteer at the monthly friendship circles. Being that I was on the cusp of becoming a Bar Mitzvah and needed a service project to fulfill, I decided why not follow and work alongside my brother. I began by volunteering at the kids Sunday Circles and really enjoyed my time there. I left with a good feeling of having done a true Mitzvah. Soon, I began attending the young adult circles in the evening. My Bar Mitzvah came and passed. Like most children, or at the time fresh young adults, I assumed that I would close this chapter of my life and move on to different things. Over the following months, however, I did not stop being involved. In fact, I increased the amount of time I spent with the organization. I took on new tasks in addition to monthly circles and events. I got involved in the home with friends program which was fairly small at the time, during my last year of middle school. This was unprecedented for a teen with my personality. I was very shy and stayed close within my little circle of friends. I could never picture myself having a playdate with a special needs teen my age. I was scared, naive, and dead set against putting myself in such an uncomfortable situation. I’m forever grateful that I mustered the courage to go through with it. Freida matched me with Sam, a boy, a couple years younger than I and only a few miles away. Accompanied by my mother and Freida, we had our first playdate.
It was really awkward. He was shy and so was I. We were introduced and were told to go outside and “hang out.” He did not want me there and neither did I want to be there. This was not out of hate or disgust; we shared these feelings because we were shy and lost. Over the next few weeks my mom would drive me over to Sam’s house and only out of ignorance and discomfort I dreaded it. I didn’t know what to do during our play time and I could tell he couldn’t wait for me to leave. I was sad and ashamed, and unlike the Sunday Circles I left feeling empty.
But then a miracle happened. One day, as we sat on the floor in Sam’s bedroom making small talk and playing with Hess toy trucks waiting for my mom to pick me up, my eye caught sight of a plastic lightsaber. I picked up the saber and pointing it in a safe, playful, way, recited a line from Darth Vader, “Luke, I am your father!” For the first time since I met him, I saw Sam smile and even laugh. We broke out into a lightsaber duel. I left his house that day feeling really happy. For the next four years I kept having playdates with Sam, doing something different every time. We built with legos, wrestled, played detective, and of course had lightsaber battles. As we got older, we expanded our activities: from movies to biking, spending time with one of my new best friends became an absolute blast. We both really look forward to our time together.
Even though I will be leaving for college in August, we will continue to stay in touch and and get together when I come home on school breaks. Sam is forever my friend.
I want to thank Freida and the Hecht family for all the dedication and wonderful events they have organized through Circle of Friends. Being a part of this unique organization has truly helped me grow as an individual and allowed me to impact others in ways I did not know I could.. Thank you to all those who participate and make our community truly special!
It is with great pleasure that Alyssa and I welcome Abigail Ross, Sydney Panzer, and Jason Hyman to the new leadership of Circle of Friends at Staples High School.