Holiday Spirit

Geoff asks his father, Steve Davis, to make him some popcorn while in their Palo Alto backyard on Nov. 16, 2022. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Posted November 18, 2022

Building friendships where schools and community organizations leave off
Volunteer buddies provide social support for children, youth and young adults with special needs

by Emily Margaretten / Palo Alto Weekly

Nine-year-old Geoff doesn't talk much; he has difficulty communicating verbally. But his eagerness to go to camp this past summer was palpable to his father, Steve Davis. Every morning Geoff would place his father's sandals right next to his feet, a clear sign to get going at 7:30 a.m., two hours before camp actually started.

"He was ready to go to camp," Davis laughed. "He was very, very excited about it. In fact, that's probably the first time he has ever kind of specifically affirmatively expressed something like that. ... Whenever he communicates something very strongly and clearly that he really likes something, it's a special occasion, and I'll take it."

Summer camp is just one of 11 support service programs offered by Bay Area Friendship Circle, a Palo Alto nonprofit organization committed to providing an inclusive environment for children, teens and young adults with special needs between the ages of 3 and 30 years. Friendship Circle started 19 years ago, initially to help Jewish families, Executive Director and Rabbi Ezzy Shusterman said. But as its popularity grew, it opened up to all people. Today the organization serves over 100 families with about 30% coming from Palo Alto and East Palo Alto and the rest from surrounding cities.

"Our philosophy is that we pick up where schools and community organizations leave off," Shusterman said. "A lot of kids may go to church; they may go to synagogue; they may go to public school or somewhere else — but when that's over, they're kind of left alone. And we pick up, and we're there."

For Davis, Friendship Circle offers something that most other organizations do not: the chance for his autistic son to be a kid. Between school and several hours of therapy every day, Geoff has very little free time to play.

"Friendship Circle is a break from school," Program Director Lauren Levinson said, describing what she often tells new families. "It's a break from therapy; it's a place for the kids to come in, be themselves and have a fun time."

Friendship Circle received $5,000 from the Palo Alto Weekly Annual Holiday Fund this year, helping it restart some of its most popular activities, like an ice-skating day, sports day and movie day. Because of COVID-19, these activities did not happen in 2020 and 2021. The grant also helped cover safety supplies, like masks, which were necessary for returning to in-person programs.

Participants of Friendship Circle particularly missed connecting with their buddies during the pandemic. Every program pairs a participant with a teenage volunteer who provides social support and friendship. Geoff met Josh Mandel, a 19-year-old De Anza College student, at winter camp last year, and they have been buddies ever since.

Twice a month Geoff and Mandel take part in Sunday Circle, a two-hour program that offers art, music and movement activities for children and youth between the ages of 5 and 20 years. The program, which accommodates up to 45 participants, helps kids interact with each other in a supportive environment.

"It's a great way for Geoff to get social time with other people and kids, which is something that I think if you're not disabled, you kind of take for granted," Davis said.

These social interactions extend to parents as well.

"It's always challenging for parents of kids with disabilities to find people to connect with that they can talk about stuff," Davis said. This is especially true when it comes to dealing with schools, state agencies and health insurance.

"It's like this whole set of systems, and none of them work very well," Davis continued. "So, there's a lot of communication and mutual support and sharing this folklore," with parents telling each other, "This is kind of how you get things done."

Recognizing the importance of these connections, Friendship Circle developed a family support group for parents, grandparents and adult siblings. It also designed a Kidz Circle program for younger children, 3 and 4 years old, which is an age when parents often receive a diagnosis about their child and have a lot of questions about what to expect.

But even for families with older children, Friendship Circle is an invaluable resource. Meg Edgett's 10-year-old daughter recently joined Sunday Circle, looking to form friendships with other children like herself. She is the only child with Down syndrome in her Hillsborough school district, a surprising situation for Edgett given that Down syndrome occurs in about 1 in every 700 babies born in the United States.

"We're a small enough community that we're still looking for ways to connect," Edgett said.

Friendship Circle, meanwhile, is at capacity; many of its programs are full with waitlists. Since the easing of pandemic restrictions, enrollment is at an all-time high, Levinson said, in part because not many programs offer regular one-to-one support, as seen with the buddy system.

"There's not a ton of programs for kids with more serious disabilities," Davis confirmed. "This one is a real asset. People come from all over the Bay Area to participate, families who have kids with disabilities as well as people volunteering to help, which is cool."

Apply for a Holiday Fund Grant

Nonprofits serving children and families may apply for funds by downloading our Grant Application Guidelines and Grant Application Form. Application deadline: 11:59 p.m. on Friday, January 13, 2023.

Make a donation
2022 Recipient Agency

49ers Academy$10,000

AbilityPath$10,000

Able Works$10,000

Ada's Cafe$25,000

Adolescent Counseling Services$7,500

Art in Action$10,000

Bay Area Friendship Circle$5,000

Beyond Barriers Athletic Foundation$5,000

Big Brothers Big Sisters
of the Bay Area
$10,000

Blossom Birth & Family$5,000

Canopy$5,000

CASA of San Mateo County$5,000

Children's Health Council$10,000

Christmas Bureau of Palo Alto$5,000

Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto$10,000

Counseling and Support Services for Youth - CASSY$15,000

DreamCatchers$15,000

East Palo Alto Academy Foundation$10,000

East Palo Alto Charter School$5,000

East Palo Alto Kids Foundation$15,000

East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring$15,000

East Palo Alto YMCA$10,000

Eastside College
Preparatory School
$7,500

EPACENTER$10,000

Family Connections$7,500

Fit Kids Foundation$5,000

Foundation for a
College Education
$10,000

Fresh Approach$10,000

Friends for Youth$5,000

Friends of the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo$10,000

Heart and Home Collaborative$10,000

Hope Horizon East Palo Alto$7,500

Jasper Ridge Farm$5,000

Kara$15,000

Learning Home Volunteers$10,000

Live In Peace$10,000

Magical Bridge Foundation$10,000

Mannakin Theater & Dance$5,000

Marine Science Institute$5,000

Midpen Media Center$7,500

Music in the Schools Foundation$8,000

My New Red Shoes$5,000

New Voices for Youth$5,000

Pacific Art League of Palo Alto$12,000

Palo Alto Art Center Foundation$10,000

Palo Alto Community Child Care $30,000

Palo Alto Players$10,000

Peer Point$20,000

Peninsula Bridge$10,000

Peninsula College Fund$10,000

Peninsula Healthcare Connection$10,000

Peninsula Volunteers$15,000

Peninsula Youth Theatre$5,000

Pursuit of Excellence Scholarship Foundation$20,000

Ravenswood Classroom Partners$20,000

Ravenswood Education Foundation$10,000

Reading Partners
Silicon Valley
$10,000

ReadySetExcel$5,000

Rebuilding Together Peninsula$7,500

Resource Area for
Teaching (RAFT)
$5,000

Rich May Foundation$5,000

Rise Together Education$10,000

Ronald McDonald House$5,000

Rosalie Rendu Center$5,000

Sager Family Farm$5,000

Silicon Valley
Urban Debate League
$7,500

St. Elizabeth Seton School$10,000

TheatreWorks$5,000

UNAFF (United Nations Association Film Festival)$10,000

WeHOPE$15,000

WomenSV$7,500

Youth Community Service$25,000

Child Care Grants

All Five$10,000

Covenant Children's Center$10,000

Creative Montessori
Learning Center
$10,000

Grace Lutheran Preschool$10,000

Palo Alto Friends Nursery School$10,000

Parents Nursery School$10,000


As of December 9th, 188 donors have contributed $251,358 to the Holiday Fund.
* indicates amount withheld at donor's request

30 Anonymous107,800
Lani Freeman & Stephen Monismith*
Roy & Carol Blitzer*
George & Betsy Young*
Diana Diamond1,000
Brigid Barton 2,000
Korol Family250
Lawrence R. Yang & Jennifer W. Kuan10,000
Harriet Benson10,000
Arthur Keller250
Diane and Joe Rolfe*
Diane Finkelstein250
Linda & Steve Boxer*
David & Betsy Fryberger400
Jan Aarts*
Judith Appleby300
Donald Barr150
Micri & Bob Cardelli*
Edie Kirkwood1,000
Elaine Hahn1,500
Retired*
Julie & Dan Lythcott-Haims250
Tess & Eric Byler150
Denise and Jeff Simons*
Keith and Linda Clarke*
Lynn and Andrew Newman*
Anthony & Susan Wood25,000
Maureen O'Connor150
Martha Shirk1,200
Jennifer DiBrienza & Jesse Dorogusker1,000
Diane and Brandy Sikic*
Alicia Newman100
Dorsey & Katherine Bass300
Charles & Barbara Stevens*
Edward Kanazawa300
Karen A. Latchford*
Xiaofan Lin100
Bonnie and Bryan Street*
Denise Savoie and Darrell Duffie*
Marvin & Kate Feinstein500
Carol & Hal Louchheim400
Leonard & Mary Jo Levy150
Eric Keller and Janice Bohman*
Linda& Jerry Elkind*
Barbara Allen100
John B. Florine Galen*
Diane Moore*
The Ely Family500
Scott & Sandra Pearson500
Victoria Befera 100
Richard Johnsson5,000
Christina Kenrick1,000
Kingsley Jack250
Richard Zuanich150
Patti Yanklowitz and Mark Krasnow100
Jody Maxmin*
Thomas Rindfleisch*
Cynthia Costell100
George & Betsy Bechtel200
Ellen M. Lillington200
Tom & Nancy Fiene200
Tom & Patricia Sanders*
Amado & Deborah Padilla250
Margo Sensenbrenner*
Merele McClure250
Joanne Koltnow400
Mindy & David Sitzer*
Marian Adams100
Bruce Campbell*
Scott and Jan Kilner500
Dorothy Saxe100
Barbara Klein*
Dorothy Deringer200
Art and Peggy Stauffer500
Kieschnick family1,000
Ed & Linda DeMeo500
Penny & Greg Gallo500
Elizabeth Salzer & Richard Baumbartner*
Fran Codispoti250
Paul & Jane Millman250
Mahlon & Carol Hubenthal*
Jerry & Bobbie Wagger*
Marcia & Michael Katz200
Scottie Zimmerman100
Bill Reller*
Harry E & Susan B Hartzell100
Ann Burrell & Charles Smith*
Janis Ulevich*
Jack and Susan Thomas*
Julie and Jon Jerome*
Andrea B. Smith100
Leif and Sharon Erickson500
The Havern Family5,000
Gwen Luce and Family*
The Dong Family200
Ted & Ginny Chu*
Theradep Technologies500
Judy Kramer*
Kroymann Family250
Roger & Joan Warnke300
Susan & Doug Woodman150
Charlotte Johansen200
Donald Price*
Freddy & Jan Gabus250
Judy Ousterhout*
Leo & Marlys Keoshian250
Donna Silverberg100
John Keller100
Kingston Duffie & Elizabeth Schwerer500
Margaret Forsyth and Glenn Rennels*
Carolyn Caddes*
Sally & Craig Nordlund500
Barbara Riper*
Katherine Bryant100
Richard & Pat Douglas50
Eileen & Rick Brooks1,000
In Memory Of

August King*
Bob Simoni500
Bob Donald*
David W. Mitchell*
Patricia A. Popp*
Franklin*
Paul Seaver*
Er-Ying and Y.C. Yen250
Chet Brown*
Robert O. Jack150
Duncan Matteson1,000
Michele Wilson*
Leonard Ware*
Bob Donald350
Ray Bacchetti300
Phil Zschokke200
Ted Linden200
Lily & Philip Gottheiner150
Jack Sutorius750
Ruth & Chet Johnson*
Walter Dean*
Nellie Perna Bartello100
Jim and Dottie Mellberg*
Gerald Berner300
Ian Halliday250
David Sager100
Robert Spinrad100
Marie and Don Snow200
Andre Jones *
Steven T. Ross100
In Honor Of

Darla Tupper3,922
Joe Simitian*
Leo & Sylvia Breidenbach and Thomas & Louise Phinney1,000
Gabby Perez & Logan Marsh250
Polly Caddes*
Marilyn Sutorius750
Dr Ron Radzilowski*
Businesses & Organizations

Palo Alto Business Park*
Arrillaga Foundation10,000
Peery Foundation10,000
Angelo Family Foundation 5,000
Hearts & Minds Activity Center75
Alta Mesa Cemetery & Funeral Home2,500

Past Holiday Fund Grant Recipients

2018-2019 | 2017-2018 | 2016-2017 | 2015-2016 | 2014-2015 | 2013-2014 | 2012-2013 | 2011-2012 | 2010-2011 | 2009-2010 | 2008-2009 | 2007-2008 | 2006-2007 | 2005-2006 | 2004-2005 | 2003-2004 | 2002-2003 | 2001-2002 | 2000-2001 | 1999-2000