The Sydney Friendship Circle is staying ahead of the curve

April 19, 2020 by Louis Goldsmith
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For Charlene Zulman, whose 17-year-old daughter Penny is a member of Sydney’s Friendship Circle, the disruption that social distancing would cause the family was a matter of considerable concern.

Penny Zulman

Charlene told me: “I was worried about the effect COVID-19 would have on my daughter. I was anxious.”

Sydney Friendship Circle has been providing regular programs like ‘Sunday Circle’ and ‘Friends at Home’ for 13 years, where young people with disabilities and teenage volunteers come together in an accepting and inclusive environment, engaging in activities like yoga, dancing, art and craft, cooking and baking.

The charity’s programs have become an integral part of the lives of dozens of teenagers and their families from all over Sydney.

For Sender and Chana Kavka – Executive Director and Director of Community Engagement respectively- the extent of the Bondi charity’s involvement in the community made the decision to suspend gatherings of Friendship Circle all the more difficult.

Rabbi Sender Kavka said: “We were worried about people missing out on opportunities because so much of what we do, almost everything, is face-to-face.”

However, the tough decision they made was responsible and timely.

“Chana and I both have family in New York and Seattle and heard first hand the quick and devastating effects of the virus there,” says Rabbi Kavka. “We closed down to protect our staff, volunteers, participants and their families.”

But once the traditional format of Friendship Circle was suspended, how could it possibly continue to provide its programs?

Rabbi Sender added: “We’ve been trying to translate everything virtually,” says Rabbi Kavka. “We’ve been upping the tempo with what we’ve been able to do ​- ​our whole schedule now involves kids on Zoom, Facetime, Houseparty.”

And it doesn’t end there.
“We’ve got cooking lessons, over-the-phone pizza making,” Rabbi Kavka adds enthusiastically.

This ‘virtual’ version of the Friendship Circle has been a bright spot in a difficult few weeks for Charlene Zulman, whose daughter Penny has had to adjust to the physical shutdown of her school and the suspension of her swimming, dancing and gym lessons – in essence a complete change of routine.

“I think we were hesitant to start with, as to how their wonderful activities could be adapted and remain engaging and exciting,” says Dr Zulman.

“But Friendship Circle has done an ​outstanding​ job in continuing to offer an extensive and varied program of activities…it has remained, as it was in a face-to-face context, the most valued opportunity for Penny to connect with her friends- both with disabilities and those without.”

Such sentiments are shared by other Friendship Circle parents, whose connections with the group have only been deepened by the move online.

Perth mother Shelley Kotkis was recently forced to bring her daughter Sophie home early from an Israel program.

“It was meant to last until June, but after the COVID-19 crisis broke we had to bring her home and we had to try and create a routine for her. ”

Previously, the Kotkis family’s involvement with the Sydney-based Friendship Circle was constrained by distance.

Sophie Kotkis, along with her volunteer sister Ellie, would go to the annual ‘Camp Sababa’ in Sydney, as well as ‘Friendship Getaways,’ but that was the extent of their involvement.

Since the move online, however, Sophie has been able to participate in Friendship Circle’s activities, 4000km away.

“It makes everything easy as we have a schedule now,” says Mrs Kotkis. “It gives Sophie a routine. It’s brilliant.”

Whilst the changes overseen by Rabbi Kavka have been largely positive, he is frank when it comes to the shortcomings of a virtual Friendship Circle.

“W​e know that more needs to be done for the kids that find it hard to participate virtually.”

And he’s working on those ideas right now.

As the organisation continues to adapt to the challenges of the times, Rabbi Kavka and his team are determined that no child or family will be left behind.

Louis Goldsmith is a Year 12 student at Sydney Grammar School

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