"It feels very good to give, but that's because by giving we're really getting."
Freida Hecht, 47, of Norwalk-Westport, CT, enjoys being with children. This mother of 11 and part-time teacher recruits high school and college-age volunteers to visit and befriend children and youth with special needs.
What kind of philanthropic or volunteer work did/do you do?
Freida: I pair up and partner high school and college students with children and teens with special needs. The volunteers visit with their special friends for one hour a week in their homes, and they build friendships and socialize. I call this “Home with Friends”. Once a month I host a Sunday Circle Social for all the kids and their friends, and we do music, art, sports and snacks. The kids have a blast, and the parents get a break. We also host training sessions for the volunteers and interacting with them is a real plus.
What is the name and location of the organization?
Freida: YACHAD Circle of Friends, Beth Israel of Westport/Norwalk, 40 King Street, Norwalk, CT 06851.
Tell us about the project, especially who benefited from this work.
Freida: Youth and teens with special needs from Fairfield County, specifically, Norwalk, Westport, Weston and Wilton. The volunteers who get involved are also transformed by the whole experience.
What inspired you to get involved?
Freida: As an activist in my community I came to realize that there really are very few social outlets for children and teens with special needs and that there was a lot of social isolation and many of the children did not have friends, so I decided to bring this program to my community with a little of my own improvising!
How did you first get involved? Give us some details.
Freida: In September 2004 I started “YACHAD-Circle of Friends” as a small project to create and build friendships. The program participation just grew and grew, so we are expanding our volunteer base and trying to keep up with the interest and excitement.
What is/was the best thing about your experience?
Freida: The best part of the whole experience is watching a teen show up at their special friend's home, and the child is literally waiting at the window, and when they open the door, the hugging and excitement…this happens every week, every visit. It's just so exhilarating. Now I'm not at every home every week, but I have witnessed this each time, and this is the feedback I get from the parents and the teen volunteers.
What is/was the hardest part?
Freida: Seeing the challenges these children and young adults with special needs face. Yet, their spirit and enthusiasm is so indomitable.
What was the biggest surprise?
Freida: When I leapt into this project, I was skeptical if it would work out, what with so many families and schedules, and teenagers are sometimes so unpredictable. Yet, the dedication and commitment of our teen volunteers makes me feel a sense of awe. They could be doing so many other things – shopping, studying, hanging out with their friends – but they choose to spend time each and every week with a special friend.
What new things have you learned as a result of your experience and how have you changed as a result?
Freida: Working with children with special needs is a G-D given gift to work with special souls and it gives me a perspective on what really matters – the fragility of life, and how we must make every moment count, and the impact we can make in this large universe. Doing any act of goodness takes you away from your personal self-absorbed state and opens up a world of sharing and caring. Imagine if every person on Earth did that for one hour a week or 15 minutes each day. The end result is a more compassionate and understanding you, and your family and friends will be impacted in a positive way, too!
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of getting involved in philanthropy or volunteering?
Freida: Go for it! Start off slowly, give a little, but once you give a little you'll realize you're really getting more than you give and then you can give more of your time and charity. It feels very good to give, but that's because by giving we're really getting!
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