photo caption:   Wilton volunteers (L-R) Kevin Fung, John Fung, Josh Bender
and Dylan Bender
were honored at the Circle of Friends Evening of Recognition.

As a graduating senior, I look back on my Wilton High School career with both fondness and appreciation. I have been inspired by passionate teachers and motivated by dedicated coaches and teammates. I have found a close knit group of friends that is both loyal and incredibly fun to be with. My family has encouraged me to try new endeavors and has been supportive of my decisions. School, friends and family have made my journey an extremely positive experience. However, another significant influence on my life has been my involvement with an amazing nonprofit organization called the Circle of Friends Connecticut.

The organization’s mission is to provide inclusive, social experiences for individuals with developmental disabilities. I have been an active member since the beginning of my sophomore year and enjoy the hands on involvement. Teen volunteers and individuals with special needs attend gatherings and participate in a variety of social activities such as music, cooking, art, yoga and dance.

Through the organization, I made a special friend named Hayden, a 6-year-old boy with special needs. I was partnered with Hayden through a program called “Home with Friends.” For over a year, we have had weekly playdates in his Westport home. During our first meeting, Hayden was nonverbal and extremely shy. In the beginning, getting to know him was very difficult. I tried communicating with him, playing with similar toys he was using, but nothing worked….until I asked Hayden if he wanted a piggyback ride. His eyes lit up with excitement and he ran and jumped on my back.

It was the spark to our new friendship. After only a few more visits, Hayden eagerly greets me at the front door and I am equally excited to see him. We build block towers, jump on a trampoline or just simply enjoy each other’s company. He says my name, giggles loudly and high fives me goodbye. We have made a difference in each other’s lives. Hayden has become more communicative and attentive during my visits. My connection with Hayden is unlike anything I have experienced. Our bond is one of a kind and I have become a welcomed member of his family.

Night to Shine Gives Kids with Special Needs a Stellar Prom Experience

The lives of children and adults with special needs can be very lonely. They may not be invited to birthday parties or involved with athletic teams. I strongly believe friendship should never exclude individuals with disabilities. The power of friendship opens hearts with laughter, compassion and joy. I truly appreciate how reaching out with friendship can affect the lives of individuals with special needs. It is hard to describe the effect the Circle of Friends has had on me, but I feel fortunate and empowered. I have developed understanding and respect for families facing difficult challenges. Making a difference in someone’s life is an experience I value dearly.

As Wilton High School’s Circle of Friends co-presidents, fellow classmate, Josh Bender, and I help organize fundraisers and brainstorm ways to identify new volunteers. If you are interested in a rewarding experience or adding joy to another person’s life, please visit the Circle of Friends website. The organization serves Fairfield County and offers different programs with varying commitment levels. There are monthly social events for both children and adults, weekly in home playdates and special field trips. The Circle of Friends is an incredible organization to be a part of. The ability to connect and build relationships provides a unique and enriching experience for both the volunteer and friend with special needs.

The Circle of Friends has made an immeasurable impact on my life. Though I am uncertain about my specific career aspirations, I know it will involve helping others. I plan to continue working with special needs individuals in college and the future….and of course, remaining close friends with my buddy Hayden.