Friendship Circle mentioned in WSJ

Good friends Anna Fireman and Rachel Herskowitz shop, go out to dinner and run together. If Anna is doing errands, she will call Rachel to keep her company. Rachel texts Anna for advice when she is upset.

They are close, but their worlds are different. Anna, 19, is entering her second year at Brown University. Rachel, 20, has developmental disabilities, including difficulties with fine motor skills and comprehension, and attends a life skills and career training program.

They met through a program that pairs people with special needs and those without. Three years later, they count each other among their closest friends.

Few friendships are truly equal. Someone is always going to be more accomplished, and one person is going to give more at a certain time than another. More important is for each friend to provide what is needed, when it is needed, as well as how you feel in a friend’s presence, says Irene S. Levine, a professor of psychiatry at New York University’s medical school and author of “Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend.”

Anna and Rachel may have an “unequal friendship,” says Dr. Levine. But that doesn’t mean their relationship can’t be genuine and lasting.

People with special needs can form deep and satisfying emotional bonds, says Peter Berns,chief executive officer of the Arc, a national nonprofit advocacy organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. But they often have fewer opportunities to make friends because they tend to be more socially isolated and because others are often uncomfortable around them. “You have to meet someone before you can become friends,” says Mr. Berns.

Although Anna and Rachel grew up in the same tightknit Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh and attended the same high school, they only met during their junior year through Friendship Circle, a Jewish organization that couples teen volunteers with special needs youth. “You bring together kids who are different, let them have fun, and the lines between them blur,” says Danny Rosen, former chairman of Pittsburgh’s Friendship Circle. The organization, with more than 79 locations world-wide, has a big presence in Pittsburgh, and Anna started volunteering there when she was in ninth grade.

Rachel has different abilities in different areas, making it hard to give a definitive diagnosis. She memorizes dates but has difficulty counting money, her parents say.

Rachel joined Friendship Circle in 10th grade. One night, as a group of teens took a bus to an indoor recreation center, Anna noticed Rachel, who was wearing a T-shirt from their high school. Anna mentioned she went there, too. “We just hit it off,” says Anna.

They began meeting each other at Friendship Circle events—bowling, cooking classes—and in the hallways at school. Rachel, who was in separate learning-support classes, memorized Anna’s class schedule and walked her to classes. When Anna went away for a weekend, Rachel made her a welcome home card with rainbows and flowers.

Rachel has a “big personality,” says Anna. She is uninhibited and excitable. Sometimes in school when Anna was standing outside her classroom, Rachel would run up from behind to scare her. “I’m a jokester,” Rachel says. Anna would be in the middle of a conversation. “She would run up and jump on me and surprise me and want me to go off with her,” says Anna.

As they spent more time together, Rachel often became jealous, especially when Anna, a teen leader at Friendship Circle, was busy organizing activities. “We wouldn’t get to hang out together as much,” says Rachel. Anna explained she had other Friendship Circle responsibilities. Rachel understood.

Anna realized the relationship had blossomed into a real friendship when they started doing things outside of school and Friendship Circle. “I can’t remember the first time she came to my house, but that was definitely the point where it went from volunteer to friend,” says Anna.

Both graduated in 2015. When Anna announced she was going to Brown, Rachel bought a Brown University T-shirt and made a Brown University keychain to give to Anna.

“I wanted to go,” says Rachel. “I text her a lot, which she hates me doing.”

‘“You have to meet someone before you can become friends.”’

—Peter Berns of The Arc, an organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities

“I don’t hate it,” says Anna.

“Yes, you do,” says Rachel. “If I don’t get a response in a while, I know and say I’m sorry.”

They sit at a table in the Milky Way, a kosher restaurant on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill.

Families file in, crowding long tables, and eating pizzas and sandwiches. Rachel yells out and waves to familiar faces. She has other friends from school and the summer camp where she is now a counselor. Anna is different, she says.

“Anna is calmer than my other friends,” says Rachel. “I text Anna if someone yells at me and ask if she has a minute to chat. We talk it out. She says everything will be OK. ‘Don’t worry about who is saying that to you. Just walk away.’ ”

Anna says her friendship with Rachel is different, too, and not necessarily because of Rachel’s special needs. With Rachel, she doesn’t have to worry about how she looks. “We can drive around and be hot and sweaty and wear the worst outfit and not care,” says Anna. “She’s not judgmental.”

Rachel isn’t on social media. Anna keeps in touch with her other friends through Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. She can’t do that with Rachel. “Our friendship is just us, one on one, and the time we spend together,” she says, even if it’s doing the most mundane errands.

Before she went to college, Anna had to apply for a debit card at a bank and invited Rachel along. The two sat together in a little office, waiting, talking and eating lollipops. “I would normally never want to drag a friend to the bank and they wouldn’t want to come either,” says Anna. “Rachel is always there for me.” Rachel’s excitement to share the smallest moments makes Anna feel good about herself. “It’s a great feeling that someone is so happy to spend time with you,” Anna says.

Rachel’s mother, Faye, says Anna has been a good friend for her daughter and is grateful that they are still close. “Going away to college gives people an excuse to part ways if that is what they want to do,” she says. “I hope it will continue.”

Anna is leaving Friday for her second year at Brown. The two have made plans to go ice skating and tubing over Anna’s winter break.

Write to Clare Ansberry at clare.ansberry@wsj.com

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