Children With Special Needs Have a Place to Call Their Own

Clauida Potamkin, Nechama Harlig, Yossef HarligClauida Potamkin, Nechama Harlig, Yossef Harlig
Children with special needs at the Friendship Circle learn to exercise outdoors
Connecting with other people was hard for Daniel Miranda, an 18-year-old who has autism. But this past summer, Daniel began to attend the Friendship Circle, a program that has since 2004 been teaching South Florida kids skills that span from playing guitar to taking the metro and of course -- as the name would imply -- friendship.

"I always would say, ‘I don't understand Daniel's lingo'" says Daniel's mother Nancy Veitia, a retired teacher. "But through the Friendship Circle he was able to meet a child that understands him. They were talking back and forth about movies and characters and episodes. It was the first time I saw my son connect with someone. I'm sure he felt that finally, someone understood him. I've had many sleepless nights, but after that I was smiling all day."

Daniel is one of 14o special needs kids who – at minimal cost – benefits daily from the Friendship Circle's programs. But with enrolled families so devoted and the autistic population ballooning, thousands of autistic children are going unserved. That's why three years ago, Rabbi Yossef Harlig and his wife Nechama Harlig -- who have been running the program has since its inception in 2004 – began plans for expansion by diligently acquiring the Kendall center's neighboring space, securing zoning rights, drawing plans for a new facility, setting out to raise money and assembling a board of directors that today includes business and philanthropic powerhouses such as finance guru David Evensky, neurologist Dr. Trevor Resnick, attorney Robert C. Joesefsberg, mega property manager Paul Kaplan, foundation president Tracey Berkowitz, former school board member Raquel Regalado and philanthropist Claudia Potamkin.

Children with special needs learn music at the Friendship Circle
Children with special needs make lifelong friends at the Friendship Circle
"It's been galvanizing to see how much support exists in our community for children with special needs," says Potamkin, who doesn't have autism in her family but was introduced to the center when her son years earlier had volunteered."Human connection is essential. Children are most vulnerable as their senses of selves are developing. When they don't belong, are different and bullied their self-esteem suffers greatly. I appreciate the many great causes in our community but the work of the FC is critically important and still very much under the radar".

That's exactly the sentiment that prompted the Harligs to take on the program in Miami, shortly after it was born in Michigan. Alongside the Chabad chapter they head – though Friendship Circle is a separate organization and over 80 percent of the participants are not Jewish — it started years ago as a home program, says Nechama Harlig.

Mainstream teen volunteers visit children with autism and other disabilities, fostering friendship and giving parents – who are required to be in the house -- much needed time to focus on, say, laundry or another sibling. Today the majority of the programs run from the Chabad campus and one-on-one teen volunteers are still a key ingredient, helping with various instruments at band practice, cooking, sports, or the life skills course that takes special needs kids to the post office, library, the gym and the metro.

"After friendship, what do parents want most for their child who has special needs?'" asks Yossi Harlig. "To function in the world. And for that, they need life skills." The new campus will offer the same interactive programming along with the addition of onsite therapies, job training, quiet lounges, kitchens and family social areas for parents who are often in great need of support.

Daniel Miranda had trouble socializing until he entered the Friendship Circle
With the program enormously successful, and its demand expanding, the Friendship Circle has managed to attract the kind of support once reserved for widely recognized organizations. In addition to individual donors, organizations have taken note with grants coming from The Children's Trust and Batchelor Foundation. The campaign aims to raise $9 million dollars and is about a third of the way there.

"Being involved in the community" says Nechama Harlig, "it's upon us to care about everyone. Now children with special needs will be part of the community. And families will have a place that would be inclusive, compassionate and non-judgmental."

Want to help? Sign up for the Friendship Circle Walk-a-thon at to learn about the Friendship Circle visit

Brett Graff is's editor-in-chief. A journalist covering money, people and power, Graff contributes to magazines including Maxim, Glamour and Harper's Bazaar. Once a correspondent for Reuters, her nationally syndicated column ran first in the Miami Herald and then in newspapers across the country including the Chicago Tribune, The Kansas City Star and The State. A former U.S. government economist, Graff's book "Not Buying It: Stop Overspending and Start Raising Happier, Healthier, More Successful Kids" was featured in outlets such as USA Today, US News & World Report, The Today Show,, and Graff, a regular on Washington DC's most popular morning show, GOOD MORNING WASHINGTON, is a frequent guest major network television affiliates across the country including CBS, NBC, CW, and ABC.

Related Features on SocialMiami