A circle of friends

Palo Alto program gives special-needs children the experience of real friendship

For the past five years, Dor Carpel and Jeffrey Zuegel have been getting together weekly to play games, eat dinner and hang out. When they greet each other, it's obvious from the big smiles, high fives and bear hugs how much they care about each other.

But the friendship means more to Jeffrey than it might to the average kid. Jeffrey, 12, was born with low muscle-tone cerebral palsy and has associated developmental delays. Like many children with special needs, friendships are not as easy for him as they are for typically developing kids. The Friends at Home program, which pairs special-needs children with teenage volunteers who visit them each week, brought the two together. Over the years, mutual affection and true friendship have flourished.

"These are the children sitting on the side of the playground. They're not included necessarily with their peers," said Ezzy Schusterman, executive director of The Friendship Circle, the Palo Alto agency that oversees Friends at Home. "This program is important because providing the opportunity for these kids to have a friend and to be like every other kid changes their world. Being treated like a typical child gives them happiness and joy and purpose.

"Jeffrey is a perfect example. He has a whole community now. He has friends that come and celebrate his birthday and other holidays. Higher functioning kids that go to special classes at Paly or Gunn have someone saying hello to them because they have a friend. (Without the program) they would have just been 'the kid in the special class.' These are the stories that we hear over and over again."

Friends at Home was founded in 2003 and now serves about 75 families of special-needs children. About 80-85 teenagers from Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Los Altos and nearby areas volunteer. Although the Friendship Circle is a Jewish organization and the volunteers are Jewish teens, the program is open to any family with a special-needs child. Families and volunteers typically find out about the program through word of mouth.

The program takes care to match children and families with appropriate volunteers and provides training for the teens. The training includes learning about various disabilities and role-playing simulations to experience different needs that each child may have. In 2011 Friends at Home received $5,000 from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, which enabled them to hire a program director to oversee the relationships and make sure that everything is going well.

"We need to make sure that children get the right buddy. We must have proper oversight to meet the family, meet the teen, match them and make sure the match is a good fit and it lasts," Schusterman said. "We need to make sure that the volunteer is having a positive impact on the child and reassure the teen that they are making a big impact."

The Family Circle raises money from individuals, organizations, family foundations and fundraising events. Because of the current economic climate, this year has been financially challenging and several donors have cut their funding, making the Holiday Fund money especially appreciated, Schusterman said.

After completing training, teens are given an activity for their first visit and a resource booklet of things to do. From there, the teens often develop their own activities based on the abilities and preferences of their buddies. The teens typically visit their buddies once a week for an hour to an hour and a half.

But that's just the beginning. Many of the families and teens develop bonds that go beyond the standard weekly visits, growing into devoted, enduring relationships. For example, Jeffrey currently has not one but three active buddies who have formed an extended family with the Zuegels. Carpel, a sophomore at Foothill College, recruited high school students Yael Waizman and Iris Bachmutsky, who will provide continuity to Jeffrey when he leaves next year to continue his education at a four-year university.

"I'm transferring after this year and most likely will be going to a school where I won't be local, but everyone who's ever been one of Jeffrey's buddies (including two previous buddies) stays connected. Every vacation when we come to town, we have a big reunion, so every time I'm around I'll visit Jeffrey for sure," Carpel said.

"The best part (of the program) is it's like having a bigger family," said Jeffrey's mom, Lisa Zuegel. Jeffrey also has a big sister, Devon Zuegel, a high school senior. "I can count on them, and we have such a feeling of community. We love it when they come over, and we have all these kids sitting around the dinner table."

Not only do the families and the children benefit from the program, but the teens do, too. "You see more of their perspective. Before this I didn't know how (children with special needs) were treated and what their families had to go through. It's a different perspective, and one I think everyone should know," Waizman said.

Bachmutsky said: "I've learned a lot from Jeffrey and how he works and how he thinks. We are always working as a team with him, making new games all the time. It's a really great outlet for creativity."

All three teens said they look forward to their weekly "Jeffrey time."

Schusterman said that the program teaches the teens compassion.

"Aside from the basics of volunteering, they get so much from what they give. It has an impact on their lives and gives them meaning and purpose. It also changes their perspective about kids with special needs from staying away from them to realizing that they are kids with happiness and joy and life to them," Schusterman said.

Lisa Zuegel is comforted to know that Jeffrey has so many people beyond his immediate family who will always be connected to him and love him.

"One of my main goals is for Jeffrey to feel like he's part of something bigger. I want him to feel like he belongs, to have a sense that he is valued, a valuable member of community," Lisa Zuegel said. "I think he really gets what that means now."

Palo Alto freelance writer Kathy Cordova can be emailed at

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