If we’ve learned anything from the past few years of uncertainty, heartache, and isolation, it is this: we all have an innate need for joy. And, when we invite others into our pursuit of it, we find meaningful connection. Individuals living with developmental disabilities are especially good at this, and soon, they will have a beautiful new space in which to cultivate a joy-full community.
Our partners at Friendship Circle have been hard at work preparing Charlotte’s very own Fun Zone – a gathering space and play environment that combats loneliness and lack of friendship by creating inclusive social experiences for young people with special needs.
Before launching a $1.9M capital campaign to fund Friendship Circle, Bentzion and Rochel Groner visited multiple organizations geared toward this population. They found that most were designed with a specific medical or educational purpose in mind i.e. healthcare centers and therapeutic facilities. In contrast, the Fun Zone’s name says it all.
Bentzion explains: “Growing up as kids, we had Monkey Joe’s and Chuck E. Cheese – elements of our social life that we took for granted. For a child with special needs, those types of opportunities really don’t exist because of the noise, stimulation, and social etiquette expected. This is the void we’re trying to fill – where kids can focus on hanging out with friends, no strings attached.”
Friendship Circle is excited to bring something different to the table. Its 6,000-square-foot Fun Zone boasts sensory walls, a parent lounge, music and movement studio, treehouse, and more. Bentzion and Rochel are particularly hopeful about the growth of their core program, which matches a teen buddy and an individual with developmental disabilities. Bentzion observes:
Rochel shares, “We’ve heard really incredible stories of kids who were embarrassed by their special needs sibling. They wanted to have friends over, but they weren’t sure how their sibling would behave. The ‘cool’ teen comes to visit that sibling and suddenly it helps validate that their sibling isn’t weird.”
She adds: “If people can get to know each other and be comfortable in our very warm, friendly environment, then when they leave, they bring that environment with them. We want to help people realize that we all have so much in common. We just get stymied by the idiosyncrasies we have. These become nonstarters in forming connections because we get hung up on the little things.”
Friendship Circle has seen positive outcomes for both teen friends and friends with special needs. A big indicator of success in these matches is an increase in confidence. Says Rochel, “They might choose to include the child sitting alone on the bench of the playground or model social cues of their teen friends when asking for something they want. We’ve had special needs kids pursue different sports or interests because their teen friend likes these hobbies. The matches open their horizons in a way that all the therapists or parents in the world couldn’t replicate. It’s beautiful to watch and it’s awesome to be part of.”
In addition to offering 1:1 appointments for teens and their buddies, the Fun Zone will host educational groups and provide a membership option for families so they can drop in anytime. Rochel notes the value of programming for parents as they process the evolving challenges of raising a child with special needs:
The Leon Levine Foundation’s $75,000 investment in the Fun Zone campaign, which has raised $1.6M to date, is tied to our Jewish Values mission area. “Judaism teaches us that the only path to happiness is by forgetting about ourselves and focusing on someone else,” remarks Bentzion. “What better way to address the mental health crisis than by helping teens focus on helping someone else?”
Bentzion concludes: “We believe that every human being was created on purpose with unique potential and a mission only they can accomplish; no two are alike. The best teachers of that mission are individuals with special needs. They’re able to teach us how to be authentically us as we make the world a better place.”