A veritable army of people touched by the opportunity to help children with special needs is harnessing the power of social networking in a campaign to win $1 million for their cause.

Beginning on Jan. 15, and lasting for a week, they will be in a race to accumulate votes for the Friendship Circle, the only Jewish organization amidst a field of 100 contenders in the Chase Community Giving Challenge, an online-based philanthropic competition sponsored by J.P. Morgan Chase.

Founded in 1994 by Rabbi Levi and Bassie Shemtov in suburban Detroit, the Friendship Circle today counts scores of chapters at Chabad-Lubavitch centers across North America and in other parts of the world. Having already won the first round in the Chase competition, the organization will receive $25,000 to support its expanding list of programs, from a central mock-up of a town square appropriately named LifeTown to at-home visits, advocacy efforts and community-based initiatives.

Bassie Shemtov says that the structure of the competition automatically places the Friendship Circle at a disadvantage because of Shabbat. On that day, many people will simply not be using their computers.

“To make up for that loss, we have an amazing team of worldwide supporters who are going to bridge the time gap,” she explains. “For example, we have affiliates in Australia whose holy day ends when ours begins.”

The Friendship Circle has enlisted the support of Jewish Federations, college campuses, individual synagogues, and legions of Facebook users, who have joined the organization’s fan page on the social networking site.

Among the different pieces of the online effort is an invitation among the some 18 million Twitter users to break the world’s re-tweet record in the quest for votes.

To reach those 18 million, staffers have a variety of strategies.

The Friendship Circle plans to double the size of the Weinberg Village to accommodate more classes and groups from the metropolitan Detroit area.
The Friendship Circle plans to double the size of the Weinberg Village to accommodate more classes and groups from the metropolitan Detroit area.

“We can spend hours on the computer prepping for the campaign, but the only way we can truly succeed is to harness our personal relationships and call in favors of support from high-profile users,” says Batsheva Hadar. “If you don’t have personal relationships, it will be very difficult to succeed. And Friendship Circle is fortunate enough to have thousands of dedicated supporters in the real world that are volunteering to join our campaign online.”

As for the Facebook initiative, Hadar says that the goal is for users to change their profile picture to a VoteFC.com graphic.

Outside of the digital world, the Friendship Circle will also be creating a crowd-stopping demonstration at the Jan. 16 showdown between the Detroit Pistons and the New York Knicks. In an effort to create both local awareness and a viral video, supporters will simultaneously freeze in place and unveil their VoteFC.com T-shirts.

The Friendship Circle’s plans for the winnings include the expansion of its Weinberg Village. This complex serves children and students from across metropolitan Detroit, who come to learn life skills in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. The Friendship Circle will also use the grant to develop a professional training program for its team of volunteers.

“We were chosen out of 500,000 charities for this chance at $1 million,” says Bassie Shemtov. “Helping kids with special needs is something that reaches far beyond Michigan and the United States. We want everyone, from every part of the world to see our message and vote. Because at the end of the day, when the computer shuts off, it’s these kids that win. That has been our mission for 14 years and it motivates us every day.”