Last month’s surprise snowstorm that wreaked havoc on the Tri-State area toppled trees and snapped power lines, sweeping up Chabad-Lubavitch of New Jersey’s fifth annual Friendship Circle Walk—originally scheduled for Oct. 30—in its wake.

But it was well worth the wait, as attested by many in the crowd of more than 1,500 men, women and children who turned up at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy on Nov. 13 for the rescheduled event. Benefiting the Livingston branch of the Friendship Circle, an international network of programs that pair teenage volunteers with children with special needs, the walk saw participants walk on both one-mile and five-kilometer courses beneath a picture-perfect fall sky.

Joining them was eight-year-old Sam Prince of North Caldwell, who, though born with multiple congenital heart conditions, took to the one-mile trail and provided friends and family members with a triumphant counterpoint to the myriad physical and health challenges that have served as stumbling blocks in his young life.

Sam’s medical challenges deprived him of the most basic childhood pleasures. He spent the formative years of his youth unable to ride a bike, run around a playground, or attend other kids’ birthday parties.

As part of Friendship Circle’s Friends at Home Program, Sam receives weekly visits from local teens Ariel Artz and Arianna Robbins, both 15, who engage him in such typical boyhood activities as hide and seek, board games, and simply sitting around and talking.

“The teens make him laugh,” says Sam’s mother, Debbie Prince. “They just love to laugh together.

“Ever since meeting the people involved with Friendship Circle, when Sam was just three years old, they have been there through every milestone,” she adds. “They brought over a ‘birthday in a box’ when Sam was too sick to have a party, and delivered hot meals to him when he was in the hospital.”

On March 14, 2011, Sam received a heart transplant that would ultimately save his life.

“While Sam was recuperating at home, a brand-new bicycle showed up in our garage,” explains Prince. “He can now ride that bike up and down the street. The Friendship Circle has brought him so much joy, both prior to and after his transplant.”

As an expression of gratitude for the organization’s philanthropic work, Prince has attended the Friendship Circle Walk for the past three years, pushing Sam across the finish line in a stroller.

This year, for the first time in his life, Sam completed the one-mile walk on foot. He proudly marched with his “Sam’s Friends” team sign and the event’s tagline—“Givin’ it your Heart and Sole”—emblazoned on the back of his grey Friendship Circle Walk T-shirt.

“The whole day was set perfectly for us,” says Prince.

The Friendship Circle pairs teenage volunteers with children with special needs.
The Friendship Circle pairs teenage volunteers with children with special needs.

Not Alone

When last month’s snowstorm plowed through the area, “Sam was devastated,” his mother recalls. “Especially since this year’s theme meant so much to us personally, and completing the walk was his post-transplant goal. I’m not so happy about all the snow damage and rescheduling the Friendship Circle had to do, but we’re so glad we were able to come to the rescheduled date. Some things just have a way of working out.”

“Sam’s story underscores Friendship Circle’s mission,” says Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, founder and executive director of the Friendship Circle of MetroWest. “It’s about the strength of each child, the challenges they overcome, and the magic that happens when a community comes together to support each other.”

“This is what community is all about,” adds Lori Klighoffer, president of the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest. “We’re so proud to be a part of [Friendship Circle’s] accomplishment, and have a lot to learn from the Friendship Circle about reaching out and building communities.”

For Grossbaum, nothing can match the joy of watching a child emerge victorious in a courageous battle to live.

“I watched Sam’s face as he crossed the finish line, and you just knew this kid didn’t just walk the one mile,” says Grossbaum. “He ran the marathon of his life, and won!”

As Prince tells the story, Sam could not have done it alone.

“During the walk’s pre-event activities, each of the kids was given a red, heart-shaped balloon, which Sam clutched in his hand,” she explains. “But at the beginning of the walk, the balloon slipped from Sam’s fingers. I watched the red heart float into the sky and I knew exactly where it was going. It was going to that donor child that gave Sam his life. That child was with us today. We’ve come full circle.”