Harris' Heroes: 'Friendship Circle' pairs special needs kids with teen volunteers

(WJLA) - Every week, 8-year-old Sophie Gottfried comes to visit Allie Wiener at her Potomac home.

The playdates are part of a program called Friendship Circle, which pairs a child with special needs with a teen volunteer.

For the next hour, Sophie and Allie -- and sometimes even Allie's younger sister, Maxie -- just "hang out."

Allie and Sophie have now been buddies for two years, and have developed a special bond -- something Sophie's mother says is difficult for children with disabilities.

"Her friends at school, a lot of them are not going to be able to give her the back and forth, the socialization, that Allie does," Allie's mother, Cindy Gottfried, explained. "I think she really feels a genuine connection with Allie."

Allie said, The Friendship Circle is her way of giving back -- in seventh grade, she was in the hospital and couldn't go to school for half of the year.

"Being that kid that couldn't go out because I was sick or, you know, I wasn't able to go out on the weekends or I had a doctor's appointment, made me want to help," Allie explained.

Chana Kaplan started Friendship Circle in Maryland seven years ago because "there was tremendous need in the special needs community," she said.

In addition to the Friends at Home program, Friendship Circle holds Sunday group activities, which can include cooking, music and sports.

"In the beginning, it was like, we're doing it for the kids. "They need the friendship," said Kaplan. "Then it became, like, we don't know who benefits more -- the teens gain so much from learning to give."

That certainly is the case for Allie, she said.

"I feel like I'm gaining so much just being with Sophie," Allie said. "I learn new things from her each day."{ }

"She's just always so energetic and smiley," Allie added. "It makes you want to be that happy. It makes you want to enjoy life that much."