Problem #1:

Teens naturally tend to be self-absorbed, obsessing and worrying: "Am I too fat, skinny, nerdy, short, tall, etc.?"

Can they be helped to come out of themselves, and get into Hillel's timeless words (Ethics 1:14), "If I'm only for myself what am I?"

A life too wrapped around oneself is hardly a life. How do we implant altruism in the "me" generation, where natural teen self-consciousness merges with having it all and wanting it faster, easier, and glitzier—internet, cable, cell phone, MTV, Game Boy, wired generation? How do we develop good old-fashioned virtues of caring, helping, giving and enduring awkward situations? How do we empower today's teens, who often feel alienated and angry, or just not matching up, to see themselves as making a difference in the lives and communities around them?

Problem #2:

Everyone wants to belong. Be loved and appreciated. Someone to laugh and fool around with. Someone whose eyes light up, just for him or her.

But, if you have seizures, drool, are in a wheelchair, or are kind of awkward or slow because you have Downs Syndrome, finding that true friend can be a bit harder.

True, Ethics of our Fathers (4:20) tells us: Don't judge the vessel by its outer appearance, but by what is in it." But that's a point easier to spout than practice. We often find it awkward to approach someone a little different; most of us want to reach out but many feel intimidated.

Parents of children with special needs experience countless episodes of pain and embarrassment as their kid is stared at and made to feel different and inferior. Finding a safe haven of friendship and social activities can be daunting.


Teens in need of purpose. Special kids in need of friendship and acceptance. Could there be a connection?

The Circle is Born

Bassie Shemtov, a young mother and Chabad emissary in suburban Detroit, had an idea. A simple idea. No big deal.

In 1995, she gathered eight teen volunteers, and paired them up with eight special needs children she knew of, to give these socially limited kids an outlet and their moms a break.

Sometimes something very simple can be just…right. With the right nurturing, it can work and grow exponentially.

This small circle, this simple good idea, grew. And grew. And grew.

Known today as the Friendship Circle, it now operates its own state-of-the-art educational and therapeutic center in West Bloomfield, Michigan. The Michigan program has over 400 teen volunteers and serves close to 200 special needs families.

Ballet practice. Volunteer Nicole Jackson, Chloe Grossbard, and Volunteer Dena Berlin
Ballet practice. Volunteer Nicole Jackson, Chloe Grossbard, and Volunteer Dena Berlin

Over 80 Chabad centers around the globe have picked up on this good idea, and sponsor their own Friendship Circles, ranging in size from a handful of kids and volunteers, to full-blown organizations and facilities similar to the pioneering Michigan model.

The core of Friendship Circle is facilitating, well, you guessed it—friendships.

It began by pairing children with special needs with a volunteer friend, who received careful guidance and support. The volunteers aren't thrown into overwhelming experiences, but guided and mentored.

Now a division of the overall organization, the Friends At Home program is Friendship Circle's original core. Volunteers visit and play with the children in their own familiar home environment, sharing friendship and fun through simple activities like reading stories, baking, coloring, going for a walk or playing in the yard. Maybe not a big deal for most children, but enormous for special kids.

The joy of a buddy to hang out with is often missing for special needs children. Many of their interactions are often with adult therapists. And the family gets a needed respite and a chance to recharge or focus more attention on the other children in the family.

Is this seemingly simple formula effective? Some Michigan Friendship Circle parents and volunteers share their impressions:

Rochelle Adler experienced the isolation of being different. Her son has a seizure disorder and ADHD. "When my son was first diagnosed, at age 4, I was devastated and in denial. We were bouncing from one school to another and felt very alone. When I heard about the Friendship Circle I was told that it would provide a volunteer to come and play. Since I was having medical issues and unable to play at the time, I thought, why not? I expected an adult Big Brother type figure, and was surprised when a kind young man showed up at my door. He connected beautifully and became a real friend. My son doesn't have too many friends, and he waits anxiously each week for this special visit!"

Rochelle's praise continues. "This is something we've been lacking within the Jewish community. It is unconditional love—the first time the community has embraced my child. It has brought us comfort. We don't feel uncomfortable or looked at, the volunteers don't look twice at a kid melting down; we know that we are totally accepted. Nobody is passing judgment, nothing phases the Friendship Circle staff, volunteers and participants. Some of these kids can't do a lot of stuff in the 'real world,' and here they can – horseback riding, summer camp, winter camp – they are given many opportunities that they otherwise don't have."

The Full Circle

How about those self-absorbed teens?

Rochelle praises them highly. "Our teens are incredible with these kids—they know little about special needs but just relate with a natural love." The volunteers, from across the spectrum of the Jewish community, personally experience the pride and joy of giving. Some even end up choosing careers in special education, an area they never thought relevant to themselves.

DeAnna Granitz, mother of a child with special needs, knows this experience will help spawn caring leadership in tomorrow's adults.

"My favorite part of the Friendship Circle is actually the terrific teenagers. I wish we could have every volunteer live with us. They do a phenomenal job working with my children. This experience will make them amazing adults one day."

The volunteers earn prizes, incentives and are rewarded with special trips and an array of activities throughout the year. Friendships develop, not only with their specials, but also with a network of peers like themselves, who stepped up, took a risk, and opened their hearts. Not only the "specials" benefit from the climate of acceptance. It is a true circle—nurturing both the givers and the recipients.

Hannah Miller, a Friendship Circle volunteer, minces no words. She calls her experience "life-altering."

"Because of my time spent with Brett I have chosen to become a special education teacher. When I am with these children I feel calm and soothed. I now that there are no judgments being passed. I know that they don't care what I look like or what I have done in the past. Together, we live in the moment, enjoying each second of each other's company."

Andy Lieberman notes that volunteering gives him that self-esteem boost that teens especially need. "As a volunteer, you instantly become your special friend's best friend. The feeling your special friend gives you is indescribable. No matter what kind of mood you are in on any given day, the pleasure you receive when you are with your special friend puts you right back atop your mountain."

The Circle Expands

Martial arts. Ben Finstein and Volunteer Ethan Gross
Martial arts. Ben Finstein and Volunteer Ethan Gross

The Michigan Friendship Circle has mushroomed in size and programming, developing many supplemental programs beyond the core Friends At Home. Today's menu of activities include martial arts, sports night, "My Friend" for younger volunteers, family programs, speakers, summer and winter day camp, learning and recreation for parents, and even a counseling and support program for recovering addicts.

Rochelle Adler wants to change the name from Friendship Circle to Family Circle. "This is not just about connections between kids and volunteers, but also parent to parent. We cry and laugh together and become like one big family. There is no pressure; everyone participates at the level that's comfortable for them."

Cathy Fogel, mother of twins with cerebral palsy, also found that the Friendship Circle's impact reached beyond the kids. "The Friendship Circle has become such an integral part of our lives. Our best friends have come from it, and it's the best thing that ever happened to our children!"

The Fogels gained more than friends for their children. "It has brought a new peace, love and Judaism to our home—before this there was no Judaism. Now our other son goes to a Jewish day school, we celebrate Shabbat dinner and are active and learning and spiritually growing." Cathy emphatically states, "Our family would not be as together or where we are now without it."

She was initially hesitant to get involved. "At first I was doubtful about joining; hey, we are givers, not takers. But I thought, 'What the heck? I'll try it—it's a way to help our kids make friends, as it is hard to form friendships with "regular" families.' Now I don't know who likes it more—my kids or me! It has laid the foundation to help my family weather the storms and provided unique friendship and wonderful programs for my kids."

The Circle's Center

The crowning jewel of the Michigan Friendship Circle, an outward sign of the love many hold for this program, is the new Meer Family Friendship Center. Located on six acres of wooded land in West Bloomfield, the center serves as a home for all Friendship Circle activities. The facility hosts the innovative Ferber-Kaufman LifeTown. A 20,000 square foot, state-of-the-art facility, LifeTown serves as a therapy center, social meeting place and activity center for many special needs children and families, and public school groups as well.

The most striking feature of LifeTown, Weinberg Village, is essentially a movie set—a scale-model city street flanked on both sides by parked cars, lampposts, and storefronts. The "buildings" include a general store, movie theater, restaurant, pet shop and bank, with working, fully decorated interiors. Volunteers act as shopkeepers, pedestrians, and other townspeople. Children learn social skills in a fun, hands-on setting.

Junior Sports. Christopher Gargiul with Volunteers Max Klar and Mike Hyman
Junior Sports. Christopher Gargiul with Volunteers Max Klar and Mike Hyman

It may have started as a small project organized over the kitchen phone, but today Bassie Shemtov and her husband Levi are co-directors of an active organization and staff that directly impacts the lives of many hundreds, if not thousands. She shares some thoughts. "Thank G‑d, it's busy and exciting. The most exciting thing is spreading and actualizing the important message that the Rebbe always taught us. "There's a precious inside to every person—including those who are outwardly different.

"Our goal is to have as many teens and adults in the general community learn to accept people that are different, to see that they have lessons to teach us that can't be learned from any professor in the world.

"If there was less judgment of people, we would have a better society. We are trying to give people a passion and the training to love these kids."

Andi Gold knows that Bassie's vision is not pie in the sky, but unfolding now. "Webster's Dictionary defines the word friend as 'one attached to another by affection or esteem.' To observe the relationship between my daughter Alyssa and her volunteers, is to observe a beautiful relationship between friends, unencumbered by parental supervision or monetary transaction. When I see volunteers like these, I know the world will be a better place."

Beautiful physical plant and the professional services of the center notwithstanding, Friendship Circle's dynamic success stems from its "100% pure and natural" core.

It's the unsophisticated, unplugged, no bleeps, flashes or recorded voices, lo-tech, hands-on power of a sincere smile and genuine friendship.