Ecstatic to see his friend Shirin Beroukhim, 7-year-old Marcus Winters hopped up and down, grinning as he leaped in his socked feet across the floor of his bedroom in a Costa Mesa apartment complex one recent afternoon.
“We play Legos and Hulk,” Marcus said excitedly, pausing for a moment between bringing toys to show 12-year-old Shirin, who sits on Marcus’ bed and giggles as Marcus leaps around the room.
Today, Marcus is intent on showing Shirin his plastic Incredible Hulk mask and a red Hulk T-shirt hanging up in the closet.
“See, the Hulk,” he said, pointing to the T-shirt.
Shirin has been visiting Marcus, who has Down syndrome, once a week for the past two months.
The two friends met through the Friendship Circle, a local nonprofit group run by the Newport Beach Chabad Jewish Center. The organization pairs up local teens with children who have special needs for outings and in-home visits.
In the past two years, the program has paired about 100 young volunteers with special-needs kids for outings and in-home visits. The program also organizes day camp programs for special-needs children.
“The teens also learn a lot,” said Chani Mintz, director of the Friendship Circle. “These teens get to know someone with special needs and learn what it’s like to have love for them.”
Shirin began volunteering with the Friendship Circle to gain community service hours toward her Bat Mitzvah, but she says she likes the program so much she wants to stick with it.
“Now I know that I can have a friend like Marcus, and that also makes me feel good about myself, too,” Shirin said.
The two climb trees, have make-believe shootouts with toy guns and just hang out, she said.
“I can tell that he’s happy when I’m here,” Shirin said.
Marcus has participated in the Friendship program for the past two years and enjoys spending time with Shirin and meeting other kids at the Friendship Circle summer camp each year, said his mother, Dora Danesi.
The Friendship Circle has helped foster understanding with teenagers and their families, who may not otherwise have come into contact with children with special needs, Danesi said.
“Through the program, we are now connected to people who don’t have someone in their family with special needs,” Danesi said.
“I am always amazed at the people who are part of this who do it just because they enjoy it.”