5 Ways Volunteering at Friendship Circle Changed My Life

From the time she was a freshman in high school, Melissa Baughman (now Melissa Ferry) was hooked on Friendship Circle.

From 2001-2005 Melissa was one of the most active members of the Morrie and Sybil Fenkell Volunteer Club, participating in sunday programs, winter camp, overnight camp and Friendship Circle’s annual trip to Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky Ohio.

For Melissa, it wasn’t about the amount of volunteer hours she got that mattered. It was about the relationships she made and the friendship she provided to the children she worked with. Before long, Melissa was connecting with several families who had children with special needs and offering to helping in addition to her school work and Friendship Circle activities.

In 2005 Melissa moved on to college at Michigan State University. Having developed a passion for working with children with special needs , Melissa knew that majoring in special education was the right direction to go in. Despite being an hour away from Friendship Circle in East Lansing, Melissa would ask her parents to pick her up every weekend so that she could still volunteer at Friendship Circle.

Recognizing her passion and her tireless commitment for volunteering, Friendship Circle offered Melissa a part-time position during her college career, which involved her coordinating and assisting in the facilitation of the Torah Teens Sunday program.

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Upon graduating college, Melissa was offered a position in Mount Pleasant, MI as a special education teacher at an elementary school, working with students from kindergarten through fourth grade. She’s also worked hard to obtain her Masters degree in special education from Central Michigan University.

13 Years after she first started volunteering we asked Melissa what made Friendship Circle so special to her. Below is her response.

5 Ways Friendship Circle Changed My Life

By Melissa Ferry

1. I learned patience

I have always been a type A personality who is driven by structure, rules and a need for control. At a young age, Friendship Circle taught me the values of patience and flexibility. A child with a disability (or any child for that matter) is not always going to follow your plans.

I learned patience as I waited for a child at the Friendship Circle with a stuttering disorder to share their thoughts, because I knew I couldn’t interrupt.

I waited patiently as children with fine motor difficulties attempted to complete the art projects during Sunday Circle, knowing I’d cause them frustration if I just strung the beads for them.

I practiced patience as I visited a Friendship Circle student’s home to tutor him and, week after week, he was upset with my presence, until he finally learned to trust me.

Our relationship blossomed into one of genuine friendship and compassion for one another.

2. I learned behavior management strategies

I remember my second year of volunteering at Friendship Circle we took a trip to Cedar Point. On this trip, one of the children became distraught over wanting a stuffed animal at the gift shop. Neither she nor I had money to spend and she quickly became very upset. This was my first experience with handling behavior.

I also remember one Sunday Circle when a child refused to participate in one of the activities. I learned the value of a “first, then” strip (although I didn’t have one at the time or even know the name of it) and how beneficial it is to pair a non-preferred choice with a preferred activity. I was able to successfully get this child to participate in the activity with the promise of allowing him 10 minutes on his portable DVD player that he carried with him.

This is still a strategy I use today in my own classroom and students know it as “you choose” time. I often have a “first, then” strip, with first being the task they need to complete (I.e writing) and then “you choose”.

3. I learned to appreciate the world through a child’s eyes

At the Friendship Circle, every child is accepted, valued and treated as a respected individual. It is not their disability that is the focus of the program, but their feelings and sense of happiness.

Because of this, I was able to witness the pure joy and excitement of a child seeing their friend after 6 days apart, the giddy rush of shopping in life town for ingredients in a recipe they would later make, and the thrill of loading a bus to go on their first sleep away camp in the summer at Camp Tanuga.

During my time at Friendship Circle, I watched children who did not take anything for granted, who appreciated the small things in life, and truly thrived off small acts of kindness and genuine friendships.

4. I learned I could make a difference

During my last year at Friendship Circle, a teen drew me a picture and a beautiful note was written on the back about how special she found our friendship to be. I think about that day she sweetly handed it to me and I still get emotional.

I also recall how I attended one Friendship Circle teen’s Bar Mitzvah, and how his extended family knew who I was and came up to me to tell me how truly amazing it was that Friendship Circle sent people into his life that really cared and supported him.

Over the years, kids grow, mature, and change because of Friendship Circle’s volunteers and the positive difference they make in each child’s life.

5. I learned my life’s calling and chose a profession

Because of how Friendship Circle changed my life, as outlined above, I recognized that I wanted to continue to impact the life of a child far beyond my time spent volunteering at Friendship Circle.

After my high school career and upon acceptance to Michigan State University, I quickly declared myself as a special education major. I now hold both a Bachelors and a Masters degree in special education and am in my fifth year teaching a K — 4 resource class with students of varying disabilities including ASD, SLD, SLI, EI, OHI and CI.

I largely contribute my life choices and my success to the experience of volunteering at the Friendship Circle.

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