Friendship Circle started in 1994 in Bloomfield, Michigan as a volunteer service to provide company and assistance for kids with special needs. It has now grown to one of the largest facilities and volunteer service for special needs kids, with over 80 divisions around the world. I spoke with Tzvi Schectman about the amazing organization that Friendship Circle have evolved into.
Tzvi Schechtman- Friendship Circle started because there were some kids with special needs who needed some extra help with their homework back in 1994. Our founders, Rabbis Levi and Bassie Shemtov provided volunteers to help them, and began to see the larger need for these kids to have some friends. The program then shifted to the Friends at Home Program, which provided volunteers to go to individuals who had special needs once a week for an hour or so. It didn’t matter what the disability was- it could be ADD or a more severe disability- their purpose was to develop a friendship connection with them. Typical kids have play dates with friends, which makes for a healthy life. But these kids didn’t have that for the most part. There were stories where they would throw a birthday party and no one would show up, or they would ask kids to play with them and get turned down. The kids began to gain so much from the volunteers spending time with them and getting to know them that from there we built a 23,000 sq. foot building called the Ferber Kaufman LifeTown Building that serves as a therapy and activity center, complete with activity rooms and gym. The most striking part of the facility is the Weinberg VIllage, a unique, interactive box village where schools with special education departments could come with groups of kids to teach them life skills. Through role play they can learn how to cross the street properly, time management, money management and many other skills they may not have the chance to learn on their own.
TS- One of the moments that comes to mind is when we had a boy who we helped when he was young with special needs. He was high-functioning in the sense that he could talk and get himself around, but he had various special-needs issues. He decided when he got older that he wanted to volunteer with us, and we wanted to make that work. He has aspergers syndrome so we placed him with another child who had aspergers. Their friendship really flourished, and the beauty of it all was that this boy had received a volunteer and benefited from it for many years and now he wanted to give back. Another part of this job that is so moving is when the kids come for a session and see their volunteers, and they run to them and hug them, and you can see the look in their eyes as they light up. It’s a very special feeling to witness that.
TS- It’s all about the volunteers who come here to make a difference. We are based in West Bloomfield, but there are now 80 Friendship Circles around the world, all independently run but based on our model. I work with the families to coordinate what would be best for them and match up volunteers with homes, and I see first-hand how effective and rewarding the programs have proven to be not just for the kids but for the families as well. It is all about bringing a smile to a child’s face, which is what we are all about.