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 12, 2023.

Make a donation
2023 Recipient Agency
Able Works$10,000


Ada's Cafe$25,000

Adolescent Counseling Services$7,500

Art in Action$10,000

Art of Yoga Project$5,000

Aspire East Palo Alto
Charter School

Bay Area Friendship Circle$5,000

Beyond Barriers
Athletic Foundation

Big Brothers Big Sisters
of the Bay Area

Blossom Birth and Family$5,000


CASA of San Mateo County$5,000

Christmas Bureau of Palo Alto$7,500

Community Legal Services
in East Palo Alto

Counseling and Support
Services for Youth (CASSY)

Downtown Streets Team$15,000


East Palo Alto Academy

East Palo Alto Kids Foundation$15,000

East Palo Alto Razorhawks
Rugby Football Club

Eastside College
Preparatory School

Ecumenical Hunger

Environmental Volunteers $7,500


EPATT (East Palo Alto
Tennis and Tutoring)

Family Connections$7,500

Fit Kids Foundation$5,000

Foundation for a
College Education


Fresh Lifelines for Youth$5,000

Friends for Youth$5,000

Friends of the Palo Alto
Junior Museum & Zoo

Heart and Home Collaborative$10,000

Hidden Villa$10,000

Hope Horizon East Palo Alto$7,500

Jasper Ridge Farm$5,000


Lauren's House 4 Positive

Learning Home Volunteers$10,000

Mannakin Theater & Dance$5,000

Music in the Schools Foundation$7,500

My New Red Shoes$5,000

Nuestra Casa de East Palo Alto$10,000

Palo Alto Art Center Foundation$10,000

Palo Alto Community
Child Care (PACCC)

Palo Alto Players$10,000

Peninsula Bridge$10,000

Peninsula College Fund$10,000

Peninsula Healthcare Connection $10,000

Peninsula Volunteers$15,000

Pursuit of Excellence
Scholarship Foundation

Ravenswood Classroom Partners$20,000

Ravenswood Education

Rebuilding Together


Rich May Foundation$5,000

Riekes Center$5,000

Rise Together Education$15,000

Rosalie Rendu Center$5,000

Sager Family Farm$5,000

Science is Elementary$5,000

Silicon Valley Urban
Debate League

StreetCode Academy$10,000

The Circuit EPA$5,000

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley$5,000

UNAFF (United Nations Association
Film Festival)

Vista Center for the Blind
and Visually Impaired



Youth Community Service $25,000

Child Care Grants


All Five$10,000

Children's Center of the
Stanford Community

Children's Preschool Center$5,000

Covenant Children's Center$10,000

Grace Lutheran Preschool$10,000

Palo Alto Community
Child Care (PACCC)

Palo Alto Friends Nursery School$10,000

Parents Nursery School$10,000

The Learning Center$10,000

As of December 10th, 176 donors have contributed $168,862 to the Holiday Fund.
* indicates amount withheld at donor's request

24 Anonymous4,520
Roxy and Michelle Rapp1,000
Sheila Botein & David Oaks250
Bill Johnson & Terri Lobdell2,500
Leo and Marlys Keoshian250
Graceann and Bob Johnson*
Anne & Laurent Coudrelle1,000
Freddy & Jan Gabus250
Susan & Doug Woodman200
Jan Thomson and Roy Levin250
Jerry & Linda Elkind250
Eileen & Rick Brooks1,000
Carol & Mahlon Hubenthal*
Peter & Beth Rosenthal 1,000
Linda & Steve Boxer*
Kate & Marvin Feinstein2,000
Nina & Norman Kulgein250
Alicia Newman50
Laurie Hunter & Jonathan MacQuitty1,000
The Havern Family10,000
Trish Mulvey100
Delle Maxwell1,000
Richard Johnsson5,000
Chris Logan100
Bruce & Jane Gee500
Ann and Don Rothblatt500
Lynn and Andrew Newman*
Robert & Micki Cardelli*
Boyce & Peggy Nute*
Diana Diamond500
Jean MacDonell100
The Ely Family1,000
Charles Smith & Ann Burrell*
Sally & Craig Nordlund500
Chris & Anne Saccheri5,000
Donna Bohling & Doug Kalish100
Margo Sensenbrenner*
David Kalkbrenner*
Daniel & Janis Tuerk*
Alan Cooper100
Roy & Carol Blitzer*
Barbara & Charles Stevens*
Susan Perry*
Elizabeth Salzer & Richard Baumbartner500
Betsy & George Bechtel200
Karen and Dick Olson500
Thomas Rindfleisch*
Bruce & Mary Beth Train500
Fran Codispoti250
Desmond Lee & Carl Jukkola150
Jane Paulson3,000
Michelle and Omar Baldonado100
Larry Hyde*
Jeanne Ware*
Judy Ousterhout*
Faith Braff500
Keith and Linda Clarke*
Tess & Eric Byler100
Bonnie and Bryan Street*
Kroymann Family250
Martha Shirk1,300
Charles Williams200
Jesse Dorogusker and Jennifer DiBrienza1,000
Arthur Keller500
Jean Dawes1,000
Marjorie Bridges25
Sallie and Jay Whaley*
Joyce & Gerry Barker*
Ed & Linda DeMeo500
Julie & Jon Jerome*
Leif and Sharon Erickson500
Cynthia Costell150
Veronica Tincher*
Chris Kenrick1,000
R Zuanich200
Judy & Tony Kramer*
Paul & Sarah Donahue2,000
Barbara Riper*
A.C. & Kathryn Johnston250
Steven Feinberg10,000
Bonnie Packer & Robert Raymakers1,000
Ellen Turbow500
Dan Pappas250
J. W. Morton100
Barbara Klein*
William Debord2,000
Bruce & Jane Gee1,000
Richard Johnsson500
Ken Bencala & Sally O'Neil100
Ted & Ginny Chu*
Dixie Storkman100
Greg & Penny Gallo500
Andrea B. Smith100
Andrea B. Smith100
Scott and Jan Kilner500
Ted and Ginny Chu*
Penny Barrett*
Kay Remsen*
Jody Maxmin*
Roger V. Smith500
Marcia & Michael Katz*
In Memory Of

Ian Halliday*
Bertha Kalson*
Abe and Helene Klein*
August L. King*
Lew Silvers*
Arden Down250
Michele Wilson50
Hannah & Helen Peterson100
Paul Seaver*
Rich Hlava*
Walter Dean345
Bob Donald300
Jim and Dottie Mellberg*
Andre Jones*
Ray Bacchetti300
Jackie Boner*
Leo and Sylvia Breidenbach*
Thomas and Louise Phinney*
Jack Sutorius750
Jenna Hilleary750
E Yanosh ALT20
Werner Graf*
Aaron O'Neill*
Dan Logan100
Darla Tupper3,922
Bob Kirkwood*
Kathy Morris*
Bob Donald*
Nancy & Robert Lobdell*
Ruth & Chet Johnson*
In Honor Of

Brian Chancellor.*
Mandy Lowell*
Jill and Brian Bicknell*
The Liggett Family*
Marilyn Sutorius750
Bill Johnson*
As a Gift for

Alexandra Hsieh200
Sally Werling100
Businesses & Organizations

Judd Properties*
Agile Physical Therapy1,500
Harker School1,500
Bank of the West1,500
Chan Zuckerberg Initiative5,000
Kaiser Permanente5,000
Stanford Federal Credit Union5,000
Stanford Medicine10,000
Wealth Architects5,000
DeLeon Realty5,000
Wilson Sonsini Foundation5,000
Delores Eberhart DDS*
Peery Foundation 10,000
Arrillaga Foundation10,000

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