Zooming into ‘Independence’

By Johanna Ginsberg

Most Wednesday afternoons the scent of fudge brownies, chocolate cookies, and other sweet confections wafts through the Teicher home in Scotch Plains as Jonah Teicher, 12, bakes with his Friendship Circle buddy, Ciel Ben-Adi, 16, of Maplewood. They connect virtually, via Zoom, from their own kitchens.

All of the supplies are delivered in advance, including the simple recipes, with visual cues added, printed on large cardstock. Jonah is able to cook alone in the kitchen with Ciel’s guidance. “It gives Jonah independence,” said his mother, Courtney Teicher. “In my eyes, it’s brilliant.”

COVID may have temporarily shut down the Friendship Circle’s popular and long-running Friends at Home program, but in January, Esty Grossbaum, FC Junior’s program director, launched the FC Electives program with a similar theme. Pairs of volunteers and participants are matched up based on their common interests, introduced, and then, they’re off. Activities available include sports, arts and crafts, board games, singing, and reading books—“Whatever works!” said Grossbaum, who thought it would draw about 15 pairs at most. The project’s success, involving over 35 pairs, with more signing up all the time—far exceeded initial expectations.

Although the interaction is Zoom-based, the high-impact activities help everyone involved sidestep Zoom fatigue. Grossbaum credits board member Barbara Listhaus with the idea, which replaced the more unstructured phone calls between teen volunteers and FC participates that has been in place since the start of the pandemic.

Listhaus, a psychologist and LifeTown board member, said, “After switching to telehealth sessions in my private practice, it occurred to me that this would be a creative way to engage teen volunteers, showcase their individual talents, and help them connect with Friendship Circle children and teens remotely.”

In recent weeks, Friendship Circle has begun offering some in-person activities, with safety guidelines in place, but not everyone is able to take advantage of those programs as of yet so the electives project is a great way to keep kids engaged.

Grossbaum has a crew of volunteers who help her pack and deliver the bags, with simple instructions and all materials needed inside. “It’s super creative, and yet another way of keeping volunteers involved and engaging the kids,” she said.

Meanwhile, it’s not only about the fun. For Jonah, the baking elective provides one-on-one interaction, requires him to follow directions, fulfills some of his occupational therapy goals, and yields something tangible that motivates him. Jonah himself realizes there are side benefits, pointing out that he learned how to measure ingredients with Ciel. The electives provide a structured and relaxed way for their friendship to develop – he’s enjoyed meeting Ciel’s cat and introducing his dog, Brooklyn, to Ciel; and he sometimes takes Ciel on a “house tour” around his home.

Ciel, a high school sophomore from Maplewood has volunteered with the Friendship Circle for several years but never had the opportunity to participate in Friends at Home.  She was looking for the one-to-one connection. “I knew it would be fun,” she said.

“We have definitely made some interesting creations together,” Ciel continued, pointing out that they sometimes go off-recipe and add “crazy” ingredients like marshmallows and chocolate chips. “They always end up being good.”

As for Jonah, his mother pointed out that he and baking go hand-in-hand. But he isn’t just making and eating the treats. They also often deliver a batch to neighborhood friends and relatives. As Courtney Teicher said, “Then he does a good deed, too!”

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