By all accounts, this Saturday night will be a long one. That's when the Meer Family Friendship Center in West Bloomfield, Mich., will operate overtime to accommodate a group of teenage girls who will stay up chatting, noshing, playing and singing in its animated large rooms.

Dubbed Wake-a-Thon 2008, the giant sleepover is the culmination of a fundraising drive that will benefit the founding chapter of the Friendship Circle, a community volunteer network that pairs teenagers with children with special needs.

According to organizers, the idea for the event – the first of its kind for the organization that has spawned some 65 branches at Chabad-Lubavitch centers across the United States, Canada and Australia – came from Friendship Circle volunteers who set out to devise a program that would foster a stronger sense of attachment to the group.

The girls set out to solicit pledges from family, friends, teachers and practically anyone they could get a hold of on behalf of the organization. One volunteer managed to get her former competition dance team to put up its annual charity collection.

"The community is full of supportive people," said Brian Nelson, counselor for the Michigan-based Autism Treatment Center of America, himself the father of an autistic child. "You just need to find them and give them a roll in recovering your child."

"The beauty of this program is that it's going to create the next level of passion in these teenagers," said Bassie Shemtov, co-founder of the Friendship Circle and a recipient of the Manhattan Institute Award for Social Entrepreneurship. "Right now, they've all committed to volunteer, but this program has helped them develop a sense of ownership of the Friendship Circle.

"It's a good cause and we get to have fun and put on make-up," said Julia Bleznak, 15, a volunteer for the past year. "It will only be for us, the volunteer girls. Everyone here is very excited and motivated and putting in a lot of effort. We're gathering contributions and it will be a lot of fun."

Bleznak and friends introduced the Wake-a-Thon during a presentation at the Friendship Circle's annual national leadership conference in February.

For now, other chapters are hoping to copy the success of the West Bloomfield operation, which coordinates a Walk4Friendship marathon, a home visitation program and an adult volunteer division. It also maintains a 22,000 square-foot life-size model of a town square that it calls the Ferber Kaufman Life Town. The facility enables children with special needs to become self-sufficient at such everyday tasks as opening a bank account or visiting the library.

"It's amazing how they've accomplished so much," said Helena Rosenstrauch, 16, of Albany, N.Y., at the leadership conference. "I wish we had our own Life Town."

Rosenstrauch is currently developing a weekly meeting dubbed Sunday Circle with children with special needs in her hometown.

Her friend Natasha Gordon, 16, added: "Until coming here, I didn't know how much of an impact we have and how dedicated people are for this. I going to try and get more volunteers. We can really make a difference and help these children."

Leadership Club

Bassie Shemtov, right, co-founder of the Friendship Circle, hugs incoming international volunteer president Deena Naomi Berlin.
Bassie Shemtov, right, co-founder of the Friendship Circle, hugs incoming international volunteer president Deena Naomi Berlin.
To help Gordon carry out her wish, Bentzi Groner is seeking to accomplish on a grand scale what the girls in West Bloomfield are doing with their sleepover. For the second year in a row, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based head of the Friendship Circle's international coordinating efforts held an election for the group's International Leadership Club, which counts some 4,000 members.

"Their goal – the elected president, vice president and secretary – is to keep all members of the International Leadership Club connected and inspired through their monthly e-newsletter publication," Groner announced at the conference. "You will come up with original ideas and methods for 'friends at home,' volunteer parties, fundraisers and general events."

Deena Naomi Berlin, a 16-year-old student at Michigan's Jewish Academy, was one of the candidates for president.

"They suggested I run, and I thought it would be fun," she said. "Eventually, I got into it and really wanted to win."

Berlin won, as did Stamford, Conn.-resident Danny Rosen for vice president and Miami, Fla.-native Emma Singer for secretary. Morlie Agor and Gila Akselrad of New Jersey were named associate advisors.

"You've got a big job," outgoing vice president Zoe Pinter told Berlin. "It's a big deal, and don't think I'm kidding."