It is dinner hour on a Wednesday evening and the Mozart Café in Deerfield Beach is filled. Servers scurry around the Israeli-owned kosher dairy restaurant. But on this night the servers are special needs children and teen volunteers from the Chabad of Parkland’s Friendship Circle of North Broward and South Palm Beach.
Sarah Biston, Friendship Circle director and the Chabad’s rebbetzin, came up with the idea for the Friendship Circle Café event to help special needs children ages 10 and older develop their social and organizational skills. The children get to keep the tips and the restaurant donates a portion of the evening’s profit to the synagogue’s Friendship Circle.
“The restaurant was very eager for us to do it,” Biston said. “It’s just so amazing to see that the children get so excited that they can be involved in something. We hope it will be a monthly thing.”
Biston said she got the idea for the Friendship Circle Café after she visited a restaurant in Capetown, South Africa that is run by adults with special needs. “I thought it would be a good idea to get children involved on a smaller scale,” she said.
Mozart Café owners Shimi Avni of Plantation and Galit Sagiv of Weston liked the idea. Avni said they have been involved with the Friendship Circle for about six months and donated food for the Chabad’s I Walk 4 Friendship event last month.
Avni is no stranger to children with special needs. His mother works with autistic children in Israel. “I grew up with the children,” he said. “I like to help them.”
He said he wants the Friendship Circle children and teen volunteers to come back. “If you ask me, I can do it every other week,” he said. “Probably, we’ll do it once a month.”
Avni said he is not doing it for the money. “I have four restaurants and enough businesses,” he said. “I feel like I want to support the parents and give the parents a smile.”
“He’s very social to begin with but this kind of made a little more structure how to interact with people in a public setting,” Amy Kamber said. “It was nice of [the restaurant’s owners] to do this. Not many places would do it.”
Volunteer Kate Jacobsen, 18, a senior at St. Andrews School in Boca Raton, helped Dina Sheva Waldman, 17, a junior at Cooper City High School to serve customers.
Jacobsen, who has been a Friendship Circle volunteer for two years, said she likes “knowing that I’m helping a kid who might be treated differently. Just to see them learn really gives me joy.”
The Friendship Circle of North Broward and South Palm Beach has about 135 children from more than 100 families, Biston said. Chabad of Parkland started it about seven years ago to involve special needs children in holiday programs, she said.
Activities now include life skills classes, a bowling league and a winter camp. The most popular program, Biston said, involves teen volunteers making weekly visits to the children in their homes. And there is a workshop for siblings, a mothers group and fathers group.
For more information about the Friendship Circle of North Broward and South Palm Beach, call 954-970-9551.
There are five other Friendship Circles at Chabad synagogues in South Florida, three in Broward County and two in Miami-Dade. To learn more about local Friendship Circles, visit http://www.friendshipcircle.com.