Making friends is difficult for many people, but it can be particularly difficult for people with special needs.
Sunday’s Walk4Friendship Las Vegas aimed to make that a little bit easier.
“Something that we strive to do is not allow differences to draw us apart,” one of the event’s organizers, Nechama Harlig, said. “Rather, our unique personalities and our unique differences should bring us closer together.”
Harlig, 25, whose youngest sister has Down syndrome, became involved with a Friendship Circle chapter in Pittsburgh when she lived there. She gained her passion for the nonsectarian, nonprofit organization from the teachings of her faith, Orthodox Judaism, which encourage its followers to reach out to every single person to make sure they are included.
“Someone who has special needs or disabilities, they sometimes can be left out of that,” Harlig said. “We want to make sure they are just as included, if not more.”
Shaina Kinn, 18, has Asperger’s syndrome and used to have a difficult time making friends, her mother said. Since joining Friendship Circle, which meets once a month and hosts holiday parties and game nights, the younger Kinn has made many friends and gained confidence.
“They help children of all kinds get together with other children,” Shoshana Kinn said.
Shaina Kinn said her favorite part of the Friendship Circle’s young adult program is hanging out with her friends.
“We go bowling,” she said. “We make pizza, homemade.”
On Sunday, hundreds of people gathered just before 11 a.m. at the Bet Yossef Community Center, 8551 Vegas Drive, to walk about a half-mile to Las Vegas Sports Park. About 500 people attended the walk or the carnival that followed, an organizer said.
As a social worker, Adella Jaeger, 28, said that Friendship Circle’s mission aligns with her own goals of supporting children with special needs.
“And teaching those who don’t have special needs to appreciate those who do,” Jaeger said.
She wants to teach her kids, ages 5 and 2, that they can be friends with people of all levels of ability. She referenced a speech delivered just before the walk by Alex Weinstein, who is visually impaired and has cerebral palsy.
Weinstein, a singer, read the speech he had written earlier in braille, and then led the group of hundreds of walkers in singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“He can do the same things as you. You’re not going to make fun of him or think you’re better just because you don’t have those same issues,” Jaeger said of the lessons she hoped to impart to her children. “We love everyone despite their differences.”
Harlig, who started Friendship Circle with her husband, Rabbi Levi Harlig, said that’s what the group is all about: inclusivity and not only being nice but also building genuine friendships with people who might be different from us.
“The point of today was to let everyone know that it’s not only Friendship Circle that can do this but wherever you are,” Harlig said. “In your school, in your community, in your cities and programs and whatever it is you’re doing, you can make sure that the people around you are included.”
The Adelson Family Foundation sponsored Sunday’s walk. The Review-Journal is owned by the family of foundation co-founder Sheldon Adelson.