Organizers proclaimed the first-ever 2K walk and fundraiser for the northeastern Philadelphia branch of the Friendship Circle a stunning success.

The weather helped, but what made the event at the Philadelphia Zoo special, said Raizel Rosenthal, was the enthusiastic participation of the community and the smiles on the faces of the children.

“Everybody enjoyed themselves,” said Rosenthal. “This was a unifying experience for everyone in the community. It was a tremendous show of solidarity and friendship.”

A post-seminary student, Rosenthal helps Miriam Shemtov, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Bucks County, run the Friendship Circle, part of a network of local groups that pair teenage volunteers with children with special needs. Reached just after the May 4 walk, the young woman had her sights set on a new day camp the Friendship Circle plans to open in June.

“Because of the walk,” she said, “we are able to expand to do bigger and better things.”

Besides the walk, the day included face painting, a walking magic show, an awards ceremony for volunteers and a light dinner.

Established seven years ago by Shemtov and her husband – fellow Chabad-Lubavitch of Bucks County co-director Rabbi Yehuda Shemtov – the Friendship Circle serves some 40 children with special needs in the areas of Northeast Philadelphia and Huntingdon Valley, and the cities of Bucks County. More than 80 young adults from Grades 7-12 volunteer, sometimes making special trips to children’s homes.

Hundreds took part in the Friendship Circle walk at the Philadelphia Zoo, which helped raise money for a new day camp experience for children with special needs.
Hundreds took part in the Friendship Circle walk at the Philadelphia Zoo, which helped raise money for a new day camp experience for children with special needs.

Once a week, Julie Greengard, 19, visits Jake, 13, who has Prader-Willi Syndrome and lives in a residential institution. Joined by a friend of Greengard’s, the pair regularly play board games and read books. Sometimes, they just chat about their weekends, an activity that helps Jake develop interpersonal skills.

“He gets a lot out of it,” said Greengard, a senior at Council Rock South High School who will enter Northeastern University in the fall. “He really enjoys it.”

The beauty of the Friendship Circle, she added, is that it not only helps children with special needs. The program also has a positive effect on the volunteers, their parents, and other members of the community.

“I can see myself doing something like this,” said Greengard, who has not decided on a major, but is considering a career in education or therapy. “I really like working with children.

“I appreciate all the things the Friendship Circle has done for me and my buddy.”

For his part, Yehuda Shemtov pointed to the walk as evidence of the public’s increased awareness of children with special. Hundreds of people, including state Reps. Chris King and Josh Shapiro, attended the event.

“In terms of reaching out to the community, this was very successful,” said the rabbi. “Above all, though, it was fun. Between everyone’s cooperation and the weather, it was beautiful.”

The Friendship Circle of the Delaware Valley, the branch that serves downtown Philadelphia and its western suburbs, will be holding a 5K walk on June 15.