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.