Glendale - Individuals with special needs are not always included in social activities, but Bayside resident Georgiy Verkhovykh has a full social calendar.
On Mondays, he walks Bayshore Town Center with his friends. They also have a cooking club, athletic activities and go to community events together. This past weekend, they visited the Lynden Sculpture Garden and the Bud Selig Sculpture Garden. They are in the process of planning a Sukkot street party on Oct. 19 and a large art exhibition on Jan. 25.
The group of friends is a non-profit Jewish organization called The Friendship Circle, which is a division of Lubavitch of Wisconsin. For 22-year-old Verkhovykh, their activities give him something to look forward to every week.
"He has met a lot of friends through the program," said his mother, Inessa Verkhovykh. "He feels like everyone understands him and supports him, and it makes him be more confident. Without this program, his life would be much different."
Friendship Circle was founded in 1994 in Detroit as an initiative of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. The Friendship Circle program has expanded to dozens of communities throughout the nation, and in 2004, it was launched in Milwaukee. Its office is located in the Bayshore Town Center.
The organization got two new full-time directors in August, when Rabbi Levi Stein and his wife Leah moved to Bayside to lead the organization.
The Friendship Circle is a family affair for Stein, whose brother and two sisters both work for the organization in New Jersey, Connecticut and Detroit. Stein volunteered with Friendship Circle as a teen, and before coming to Milwaukee, he and his wife Leah launched and administered the Friendship Circle program in Puerto Rico for five years.
Helping individuals with special needs is also a passion for Leah Stein, who has been in the field for more than 10 years. She has a master's degree in special education and has created and administered curriculum for children with special needs during her career with the the New York Board of Education.
Friendship Circle is a family business for Rabbi Stein. One of his sisters runs Friendship Circle in Connecticut, and his other sister runs Friendship Circle in New Jersey, where she just broke ground on a $15 million development for the organization.Stein's brother oversees facility operations for Friendship Circle in Detroit.
Stein's top priority with Friendship Circle of Wisconsin is bringing back the Friends at Home program, which has slipped into dormancy over the past five years. The Friends at Home program pairs two teenage volunteers to visit individuals with special needs at their home. They read books, play games, talk about school and form friendships in the process.
As part of his effort to re-establish the Friends at Home program, Stein has been meeting with local rabbis, therapists and special education professionals to find children with special needs who may be interested in having a teen volunteer hang out with them at their home. The program is not necessarily limited to children with special needs, Stein said. It may also benefit children with troubled home lives, students with learning disabilities or older people with special needs.
When he arrived in August, Stein only knew of two children with special needs, but through his outreach efforts, he has met another six or seven families. The concept of letting teenagers socialize with their child with special needs is new to some of these families, but Stein is hoping that public awareness of the program will grow as he makes more connections in the community.
Once a family expresses interest in the program, Stein meets with the family, conducts background checks on the family, meets with nearby teenage volunteers, performs a reference check for the teenage volunteers and conducts background checks for any adults interested in volunteering. Two volunteers attend each session, and parents remain in the home during the visit. The program is free.
Stein said the relationship between teenage volunteers and children with special needs often starts as a way to earn community service for college applications, but ultimately it results in a meaningful friendship.
"Imagine having a friend that likes you no matter how you dress or what social scene you are part of," Stein said. "When you volunteer with Friends at Home, you have a friend who is happy to be with you."