When Leah Cohen moved to Boca Raton, Fla., she called the local branch of the Friendship Circle before they even found a house. It’s a place where her nine-year-old son Ari, who has a rare chromosome disorder, finds community and acceptance.
For years, the organization – part of a network of Chabad-Lubavitch run programs that pair teenage volunteers with children with special needs – has been supporting hers and other families, but the other night, Ari and other children were able to give something back.
As part of a program called the Friendship Circle Café, Ari and his friends, joined by teen volunteers and restaurant wait staff, took and filled orders as area residents and supporters dined at the kosher Mozart Café. Designed to impart responsibility and offer a chance to interact with others, the program also drew attention to the Friendship Circle’s work.
“The kids enjoy themselves and the whole learning experience,” remarked Cohen. But “when I went there, I saw a whole different ballgame. What I saw was not just Ari learning life skills and learning responsibility, but I saw the people: The diners there gained just as much as the kids did.”
That’s quite different from the stares they usually get when they’re out to eat, said the mother. Ari came in and ran right for the soda machine, and the restaurant’s owner jumped right in to show him how it worked.
“They really touched people’s hearts,” she said, adding that the social interaction pushed the children and diners to just see the kids as kids. “It was the first time that we went into a restaurant that we had a good experience. Not only did they accept him, but they let him be who he is and they embraced that.”
The evening ended with the kids themselves sitting before their very own pizza and fries.
“It was probably one of my all-time favorite experiences of my whole life,” said Cohen.
When the Cohens returned to the Deerfield Beach restaurant on a more recent occasion, the owner took Ari in the back and let him help make the salad.
“He continues to teach, and it’s an amazing thing,” said Cohen.
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