Purpose and perspective: Volunteer Kickoff 2023

These teens would rather volunteer than have down time in their days. Making others feel good about themselves leads them to appreciate what they have in their lives. They are the Friendship Circle teen volunteers, the critical people who make a difference in the lives of their special friends every day. Without them, the programs would not run.

On September 6 they came en masse to the 2023 volunteer kickoff orientation – nearly 200 of them. Some came with friends, others with parents. As they walked in the door and grabbed their blue Friendship Circle t-shirt, many got a handshake or a high five from peer president Jacob Glazer, who has volunteered for several years already, and always finds space in his schedule for Friendship Circle in addition to school, basketball, and track. “I just love the environment here. I feel like I’m always doing good in the world.”

Some, like Shaya Zorel, had come for the first time. “I think it’s important to get experience with people with special needs. It’s a great opportunity to get to know someone different from myself,” said the tenth grader from South Orange.

Emma King, 12, of Millburn took advantage of the mitzvah training last year and is now looking forward to volunteering. “I have a speech impediment and because of that I have empathy and can relate to kids who have a disability. It makes me want to volunteer here and help out,” she said.

A handful had their first experience as counselors in summer camp, like Samantha Davis, 15 of Montville. “I was looking for something to do at the end of the summer,” she said. “It was such a good experience, I couldn’t wait to come back here!” She learned over the summer just how much her presence meant to another family. “I realized that if I volunteered, it meant another kid could come to camp.” 

Ask for a show of hands of who has been here before and it’s clear: so many teens are serial Friendship Circle volunteers. They come back year after year, whenever they have downtime. Evan Caplan, a 16-year-old junior at Newark Academy has been volunteering on and off for years. “When I have empty time in my day, it’s always good to use it to give back,” he said.

For many teens, volunteering and knowing they matter offers a sense of purpose in their lives they don’t find elsewhere. CEO Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum underscored the critical role they play at LifeTown in a brief welcome, reminding them to enjoy themselves while they help out.

“You help us build this place, and you make an incredible difference here. And the most important thing to remember is to have fun. When you are having fun, everyone has fun!” 

Teens thrive on the philosophy of encouragement and warmth that undergirds LifeTown, providing a respite from the pressures of their regular lives. Lily Mandler, a 15-year-old FC school president from Livingston, estimates that she spends about 20 to 30 hours each week volunteering at LifeTown. She speaks so highly of it that a friend came with her to orientation, just to experience it for herself. “It’s such a good environment. Everyone here is so nice and it feels so good to be a part of something like this,” said Mandler.

By the end of the evening, they had checked the boxes and committed their time to volunteer at Sunday Torah Circle, at weekday sports, art– or for some, like Lily Mandler, all three.

Before heading out, tenth grader Arielle Karni, now a school president who started volunteering in sixth grade, said, “It’s really special that we have something so important locally, and it’s important to give back. Coming here also puts everything in context. It makes all the random school drama seem much less important.”

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