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North Hills Monthly

Friendship Circle Promotes Inclusivity for Kids of All Abilities

Oct 31, 2019 02:07PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Members enjoying a day at the Carnegie Science Center.

Since 2006, Friendship Circle in Squirrel Hill has been bringing teens and young adults with and without disabilities together for friendship and social activities. The nonprofit runs more than 200 events and programs per year, based on its primary philosophy that all lines between abilities should be blurred as much as possible. Founded by Rabbi Mordy Rudolph and his wife Rivkee, who function as executive director and director, respectively, Friendship Circle has a staff of 13 and a membership roster of 450 that continues to grow.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the mission of the Friendship Circle?

Rabbi Mordy Rudolph (Rudolph): Friendship Circle is a community organization that brings together people of all abilities for mutually advantageous social activities. It isn’t an organization for people with disabilities specifically—it is about people with all abilities learning from each other. That is our core philosophy, and we make sure that is felt throughout the programs and everything we do. It should be something everyone can gain from and appreciate together. Ensuring that the community should be a more inclusive one is our overall goal.

NHM: How did the organization get started?

Rudolph: Friendship Circle started in Michigan in 1994. What’s nice is that it is national, but at the same time each one is completely independently operated, so if we want to start new initiatives, we’re free to do it our way and start our own programs and do our own thing. We had heard about it and knew they had success there; the folks who had spent time in Michigan talked glowingly about what the program does not just for people with disabilities but for the community overall; that is what triggered us when we were moving back to Pittsburgh from New York.

One of the things we did here is realize that it is a community organization; it’s not about getting people with disabilities together and having volunteers help those kids and assigning kids to them. It’s about a circle, and leveling the playing field so that we may find equal opportunities for everyone. We don’t want to be a charity project; we want to create meaningful relationships. 

NHM: Why did you want to establish an organization like this here?

Rudolph: In the beginning, there weren’t a whole lot of options for kids with disabilities in the Jewish community, though I think that has slowly changed. There really isn’t anything like that we do; there is nothing else like this that bridges the gap between kids with and without disabilities.

NHM: What are some examples of programs and events you offer?

Rudolph: We started with the Friends at Home program and moved into a creative arts club, cooking club and bowling league. We have now moved into a moms’ night and holiday programs; really anything for social opportunities, including girls’ and boys’ nights and movie nights.

This year, we had a Teen Scene kickoff that was fully inclusive as is our Teen Leadership board; I feel like it’s a great reflection of who we want to be.

We have a Kids Who Care program, where younger kids have an opportunity to volunteer. We have a Family Fun day based on a monthly theme; young families get together for storytime, for music, for a craft project, while we are trying to introduce young children to our mission.

Another thing we’re doing is creating clubs in schools so teens in Fox Chapel, Mt. Lebanon and Allderdice can get involved and understand the mission and learn from it.

NHM: Although it is a Jewish-based organization, is it open to anyone of any faith?

Rudolph: Yes, it is!

NHM: Tell me about the Friends at Home program and the Friends on the Town program.

Rudolph: Friends at Home is our initial program, and it still exists; it consists of home visits that we facilitate. Friends can request Friends at Home to get to know each other. We do require a year’s commitment to it; the relationships developed from this are just amazing. The Friends on the Town program is for our members as they transition into young adulthood. We can never start enough programs for our young adults; anything we do is welcome, and anything we try is appreciated.

NHM: In this day and age of busy schedules, what is the impetus for neurotypical kids to get involved with Friendship Circle?

Rudolph: It is really the one opportunity that they have to take some time that will not be about themselves. Yes, it’s the ‘me’ generation; but this it about something greater than themselves. So much of their daily lives are being spent with things they have to do for college credits, etc., but at the end of the day, we need to take time out of our day for someone else. It makes us more fulfilled. What we’ve seen is an amazing amount of teen leadership skills: young people have started their own organizations and initiatives, which has been inspirational to watch.

Getting to know people who you wouldn’t otherwise be connected to allows you to see different perspectives and makes you a better person.

NHM: In keeping with your philosophy that one cannot put a price on friendship, members pay no fees for your programs. How are you funded?

Rudolph: We are funded largely though individual donations; a small number of foundations give us annual support, but there is a lot of individual support. Our cornerstone annual fundraising event is called Friends All Around, where we recognize our graduating members. We typically have 600 people attending, and it has raised more than $300,000 for the organization.

NHM: Are there any new initiatives coming up in 2020?

Rudolph: One thing we’re always trying to find is opportunities for the adult population. We’re starting Friendship Fellows, where some adults will work in the office on various days of the week, some with support, and some without. They’ll be doing things like data management, greeting people at the front door, and decorating for activities. There are about 17 adults who work weekly in our office.

We’re partnering with the Beauty Shoppe, a co-working space, trying to find more opportunities for young adults to get outside of the comfort of our Friendship Circle building.

Another initiative is with Jewish Family Community Services and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation—we’re creating a project to address the needs of teens dealing with mental health struggles. We have addressed some of those needs but felt like we needed to do more.

NHM: What is your outlook for the future? 

Rudolph: It’s really quite broad—we want to be able to really look at our community and see it as a fully inclusive one. This isn’t about addressing needs of people with disabilities and making their lives better, but about making all of our lives better as a community as a whole.