Nine bicyclists riding across the United States stopped in New Albany last week to help raise awareness of the Friendship Circle, a Jewish program that pairs teens with special-needs children and adults.

Nine bicyclists riding across the United States stopped in New Albany last week to help raise awareness of the Friendship Circle, a Jewish program that pairs teens with special-needs children and adults.

"It's something more than just riding cross country," said 18-year-old Efraim Shaw of Monsey , N.Y.

Friendship Circle started in Detroit in 1994 when Jewish leaders hoped to pair teenagers with special-needs children to form lasting friendships.

By 2003, the concept had developed into an organization, which now includes more than 79 chapters worldwide, according to the Friendship Circle International website.

"I believe everybody deserves a friend and everybody needs a friend," said Esther Kaltmann, director of the Friendship Circle Columbus chapter. "Our goal is for everybody to have a friend."

Kaltmann said the Columbus chapter, located in the Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center in New Albany, has 60 special-needs children and adults, ages 5 to 24, paired with 120 volunteers, ages 12 and older.

Kaltmann said the volunteers come from local middle schools, high schools and the Ohio State University.

"The volunteers love being 'buddies,' " she said. "It's a reason for them to get up in the morning, to know they are making a difference."

Kaltmann said the friendships are based on nonjudgmental relationships, so teens know they are friends with someone who doesn't care about what they have or the clothes they wear or how popular they are.

Kaltmann's husband, Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann, said it also gives teens a sense of appreciation.

"The volunteers learn to truly appreciate the blessings they have," he said. "It's important for teens to learn how to give."

People interested in the program can sign up for free, Esther Kaltmann said.

Special-needs participants are paired with two volunteers, and they spend time together regularly.

Areyah Kaltmann said the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Board of Franklin County and the Columbus Jewish Federation also contribute to the program.

"Teens learn the gift of giving and how lucky they are to be healthy," he said. "They learn that they don't want to ruin their lives with unhealthy addictions."

The nine cyclists were greeted at the Chabad Center in New Albany July 24 by 100 children from local summer camps.

Nissan Kornfeld, 22, of West Bloomfield, Mich., who is part of the cyclists' support staff, said the cyclists were encouraged to raise $1,000 before participating in the trip.

They are hoping to raise $150,000 for the Friendship Circle before reaching New York in two weeks.

Kornfeld said 11 cyclists began the trip. One was hit by a car and, though uninjured, decided to return home. Another had to leave to go back for school.

Kornfeld said they were riding an average of 85 miles a day.

He said part of their mission is to erase stereotypes about people with special needs.

Kornfeld said families with special-needs children used to be embarrassed and might not take their children out with them. But, he said, the Friendship Circle is trying to make that "ancient history."