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"Circle of Friends," Cooking Corps Expand Inclusive Community at Temple Beth Israel

Teens from high schools in Norwalk, Weston, Wilton and Westport gather with special needs students to form a "Circle of Friends."

Neal Mintz of Fairfield and Derek Nussbaum of Weston try some healthy veggie sushi with their friend Eli at Circle of Friends gathering on Sunday at Temple Beth Israel of Westport/Norwalk. Credit: Leslie Yager
Neal Mintz of Fairfield and Derek Nussbaum of Weston try some healthy veggie sushi with their friend Eli at Circle of Friends gathering on Sunday at Temple Beth Israel of Westport/Norwalk. Credit: Leslie Yager
During two fun-filled hours of hula-hoops, rainbow parachutes, sushi making and guitar sing-alongs, Temple Beth Israel of Westport/Norwalk buzzed with activity on Sunday.

Delivering a healthy-eating message hidden inside a fun veggie sushi-making project, Ilisa Nussbaum and her Cooking Corps volunteers set the stage for a fun Sunday afternoon for dozens of teens.

Nussbaum's volunteers include University of New Haven students, as well as high schoolers like Cameron Langhoff of Wilton High School. Under Nussbaum's leadership the Cooking Corps take their lessons on the road, visiting schools, youth sports teams and after-school programs.

In November Cooking Corps visited the Town & Country Montessori School in Wilton and made whole wheat pumpkin muffins with the pre-schoolers.

"Kids will eat what they make," observed Kristin Tallodi who is from Norwalk and is a UNH student. 

"This group is kids with special needs with very specific nutritional needs. I know how difficult it can be to work proper nutrition into your daily life," said Nussbaum, a full-time Clinical Dietitian at Yale. "This exposes them to foods important for nutrition, but that they might refuse otherwise. But because it's a fun, prepared with friends, it makes foods less intimidating."

Frieda Hecht, the director of Circle of Friends echoed Nussbam and added, "We have volunteers from all the high schools. It's non-sectarian. They learn there is a direct connection between food and health. And I think it helps with behavior," said Hecht. "It's up to whoever provides food to offer good choices, to make it tasty and fun. We made fruit shakes and fruit kabobs last month," Hecht added.

" A lot of Circle of Friends students volunteer for their bar or bat mitzvah projects," said Susan Robison, the group's volunteer coordinator.

Robison, of Westport, who has been with Circle of Friends for ten years, said teens who would like more information about volunteering with the group should contact circlefriendsct@gmail.com  

On Sundays, teens com from near and far, and represent schools including Norwalk High School, Wilton High School, Weston High School and Staples High School.

"We have an amazing group who devote one Sunday a month to buddy up with a special needs child. We've seen the benefit both for the teens who are often drawn out of shyness, and for those with special needs who get a feeling of community," said Robison.  

Teens looking to increase their commitment can be paired with a special needs student and set up a weekly get-together. 

Sydney Robison and Greta Bjornson, juniors at Staples High School, said they enjoy the "Home With Friends" weekly playdate program.

"We bring art projects, cooking projects or sports activities when we go for our visits," said Bjornson. The girls said they also go to various high schools to talk with students about start-up clubs. 

Temple Beth Israel of Westport/Norwalk is located at 40 King St, Norwalk, CT 06851 Tel. (203) 866-0534

More information is available on the Circle of Friends website, or call (203) 293-8837 email circlefriendsct@gmail.com

Nussbaum can be contacted through the Cooking Corps website or at info@cookingcorps.org 

Related Story:
Healthy Eating? Cooking Corps Snags Them While They're Young

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