For many children with special needs and their families, who have negotiated mazes of bureaucracy and faced the challenges of societal prejudice and low expectations, one particular international organization has come as a blessing. With an army of thousands of teenage volunteers, who themselves speak of life transforming experiences, the suburban Detroit-based Friendship Circle gives those society often forgets the opportunity to shower blessings on others.

“I have such a different attitude towards children with special needs,” says one volunteer, 16-year-old Atara Kaye of Sydney, Australia, who joined her local Friendship Circle two years ago. “I used to get a bit scared until I noticed how special they are.”

Founded in 1994 by Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Levi and Bassie Shemtov in West Bloomfield, Mich., the Friendship Circle embarked on a mission to help children with special needs and, in the process, change the way other children viewed those who were different. Emboldened by the teachings of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, the organization – which has since expanded to include chapters across the globe – sees each of its members as empowered to make a special contribution to the world.

Kaye says that when she first went to the house of her special friend, as those active in the Friendship Circle frequently call one another, she was incredibly nervous. She had never interacted one-on-one with a child with special needs before.

But when she saw her friend, a 13-year-old autistic girl, she was awash in relief.

“She was jumping up and down and screeching, she was so excited,” says Kaye. “I had never seen such a beautiful smile before.”

Kaye’s friend doesn’t talk, but the pair spends a lot of time jumping on the trampoline, singing and playing games together.

“She’s amazing. You know what she’s trying to say,” relates Kaye, who wants to continue to volunteer for whichever Friendship Circle chapter she finds next to her seminary next year. “The weirdest thing is that I’m getting so much from her. She makes me feel special.”

The Friendship Circle’s children, likewise, say that their lives have changed as a result of the program.

Liliya Bromberg, a 19-year-old with cerebral palsy from Michigan who joined in 1996, records her thoughts and feelings in a blog.

“This is my favorite place in the world,” she writes. “It’s a place where I feel comfortable, trustworthy and loved.”

Writing about one of her friends, she compares the two of them to candles: “Together, we can change lives for eternity and for the rest of the world! Together, we are standing forward as candles in the dark!”

According to Bassie Shemtov, who was honored with a Manhattan Institute Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2007, the experiences of Kaye and Bromberg are not unique. She points to a groundswell of support for the organization in this week’s Chase Community Giving Challenge – an online vote-based competition among 100 non-profits for a $1 million grant from J.P. Morgan Chase – as evidence of the lives the Friendship Circle has touched, both directly and indirectly.

“Children with special needs are loving, non-judgmental, perfect souls contained within an imperfect body,” she explains. “Their non-judgment inspires your eyes to look at the inside, rather than the outside of people; their ability to love others unconditionally inspires your heart to open up to the vast rewards human relationships can provide.”

A Growing Family

Parents laud the organization for its approach and commitment.

Ronelle Gereir, of West Bloomfield, Mich., says that the Friendship Circle made her dreams finally come true. Her daughter Molly was eight-years-old in 1994 when the Shemtovs came to town. Molly, who has autism, was in public school like other children with special needs in the state. But after school, there was nowhere to go.

“They didn’t have a social outlet, they didn’t have friends,” says Gereir. “I felt like an outcast in the Jewish community.”

Soon, the newly-formed Friendship Circle started offering a Sunday program where parents dropped off their children for group activities with teenage volunteers.

“One of my dreams,” says the mother, “was a place where our kids would be welcomed and accepted.”

The program also afforded her some free time for herself.

“One of the great things about it is that it gives parents a break,” she says.

Around the same time that Gereir began dropping Molly off at the Friendship Circle, a young Julie Kaplan started coming to their home once a week.

“She was having her bat mitzvah when we met her, and now she’s in medical school,” reflects Gereir. “She still comes whenever she’s in town. They still have a bond.”

Participants of the flagship Friendship Circle in suburban Detroit enjoy an outing to a pet shop.
Participants of the flagship Friendship Circle in suburban Detroit enjoy an outing to a pet shop.

Now 22, Molly is still active in the Friendship Circle. She regularly visits its Ferber Kaufman LifeTown Center in West Bloomfield, a sprawling complex whose Weinberg Village offers a life-sized mockup of a typical town square where children with special needs can practice life skills in a stress-free environment.

Children and young adults like Molly, including entire special education classes from around Detroit, visit the center’s medical offices, bank, park, drugstore and other sites while learning about using crosswalks and obeying traffic lights. The concept has been borrowed by other Friendship Circle chapters in Ohio and Canada, and the Shemtovs plan on expanding their LifeTown with the Chase grant.

Shlomo Sawilowsky, assistant dean of education at Wayne State University, says that a study he conducted on LifeTown demonstrated the program’s success at helping children with special needs integrate into society.

“Results of the experiment demonstrated students’ perceptions were favorable toward learning in the simulated environment,” he explains. “In fact, they were more favorable to it than the school classroom or at home.”

The study also showed that repeated visits significantly increased crucial observed behaviors.

“The simulated environment provided a safe place for students to develop at their pace,” says Sawilowsky. “LifeTown as a life skills-intervention works, and it works very well.”

Molly, whose younger brother and sister both volunteer at the Friendship Circle, had the chance to put some of those skills to work at a recent outing to a local mall, where she used some of her Chanukah money to buy a favorite DVD.

“One of the beautiful things about the Friendship Circle is that they are so flexible,” says Molly’s mother. “At Friendship Circle, you are like family. You don’t get rid of family because they have a birthday, you continue to find spaces.”

“We have a deeply connected community of people who are not only empowering their children with special needs, but allowing these children to shine,” says Shemtov. “And in these children’s light, we continually find ourselves transformed.”