Becoming friends with my special needs peers


Araceli Espinoza (left), Sebastian Lipstein (top center), Tyler Carron (bottom center) and Simone Thompson (right) take a break during walking club for The Friendship Foundation at Dale Page Park in Redondo Beach on Monday, May 16. This is just one of the many activities that the foundation does six days a week. Photo courtesy of Maddy Silver

We see our special needs and disabled peers every day, but we may not ever know them.

Recently, I wanted to learn more about this specific community, meet them and see their worldview and the worldview of their family and loved ones.

How do they view the world that we live in together? What do they think of events as they unfold?

I wandered the internet and found The Friendship Foundation. This was an organization based in the South Bay that provides fun activities and programs to the special needs community and are welcoming volunteers.

According to their website, the Friendship Foundation started over 14 years ago as a group of eight special needs youths hanging out with teen volunteers once a month in Manhattan Beach, at their “Sunday Circle.”

Years later, that “Sunday Circle” evolved into affiliated programs in over 40 schools in the South Bay area at the public, private and charter levels, reaching nearly 2000 students on an annual basis.

The foundation itself runs activities year-round, six days a week, ranging from book club, yoga, beach and bocce, art, bowling, summer camp and much more.

This spring, I’ll never forget when I had so much fun playing basketball for the first time with the kids at the Friendship Foundation.

When we were shooting hoops at Dale Page Park in Redondo Beach, it didn’t matter if they had a hard time dribbling or shooting the ball, we were all happy, joking, and had genuine smiles on our faces.

Feeling our radiant joy together and seeing their wholesome humanity and character, I realized that despite our differences, my special needs peers and I are very similar. I understood there is no us and them when it comes to special needs peers.

Throughout my experience, I have admired their happiness, good nature, genuineness and eagerness in all of our activities. I find myself wanting to be more like my special needs friends in my life.

I’ve also met wonderful volunteers at the Friendship Foundation, like Joei.

Karrisa “Joei” Duran, 20, a child development major at El Camino, has been volunteering at the Friendship Foundation since she was 10 years old.

Duran decided to volunteer because her younger sister, Sofia, has down syndrome and was being an “overprotective sister” by going with her to the Friendship Foundation. She has since embraced the special needs community beyond her sister.

“Everyone is deserving of love and we all want the same thing, which is a friend,” Duran said. “One buddy that really changed my life was Layla, who I met at summer camp. The joy we had dancing, cooking and doing anything together and bonding over activities showed me the true power of friendship.”

Over the last couple of months, I have spent many days with the participants and volunteers partaking in “soccer golf,” yoga, parties and playing ball in the South Bay area.

In full transparency, I actually leave my computer science class early most days to be with my friends there. Experiencing the funny conversations with Ricky and his immense curiosity for the world of soccer golf has brought much more joy and a shift of perspective into my daily life.

But the joy doesn’t stop at Ricky or any individual participants. All the participants; Erin, Tyler, John, Joshua, Sean and all the others, are all beautiful and great in their own way and I look forward to any time I spend with them.

I’ve also met another cool El Camino student-volunteer at the Foundation, Leney Newell.

Newell, a 19-year-old nursing major at El Camino, started working with the Friendship Foundation last year after volunteering with them since the sixth grade. She says she has loved her experience with the special needs community and Friendship Foundation.

“The friendships you build here are genuine and real, everybody here wants to be genuine,” Newell said. “It’s a safe space where everybody is welcome. You can’t find that anywhere else.”

Time spent with the Friendship Foundation is like taking a step out of our high-paced and stressful society and committing yourself to genuine human interaction and enjoying the moment.

“Everybody deserves a friend and it doesn’t hurt to try,” Newell said. “If you have time, give it a try and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it. But if you do, you’re welcome here. Everybody is welcome”

Volunteering with the friendship foundation taught me a lot about the vibrant and wonderful special needs community around me that I knew nothing about.

Some of the participants like John and Anthony, actually take adaptive fitness classes at El Camino through the special resource center. There is a special needs community right on campus, using the same facilities, walking the same hallways as us.

Reach out. You might make some friends and be glad you did.

Editors Note: Fixed spelling mistake of Tyler Carron’s name. The Union regrets this mistake. June 1, 2022 at 9:23 p.m.