More than 800 teenagers, parents and community members gathered in the Detroit suburb of West Bloomfield for an annual tribute to volunteers who have helped make the Friendship Circle, a Chabad-Lubavitch program that pairs teenage volunteers with children with special needs – into an international project with more than 72 chapters in seven different countries.

Among other accomplishments, the 13th annual Volunteer Recognition Night at the Friendship Circle’s flagship chapter – housed in the sprawling Meer Family Friendship Center – called attention to the past year’s introduction of the Mitzvah Volunteer Program. Organizers termed the project groundbreaking for introducing preteens to the intricacies of working with children with special needs.

Dina, whose 12-year-old daughter participated in the program’s spring training session, said that the new initiative was transformative for both the volunteers and the Friendship Circle’s roster of children.

“My daughter has grown tremendously from this program,” said Dina. “It is the first time that she’s really been able to see how she can make a difference in someone else’s life, that even though she is still young, she has something to give: her attention, her patience, her friendship.”

In attempting to shed some perspective on the range of populations affected by the Friendship Circle, from the volunteers to children with special needs to their families, Raizel Schectman told the crowd that the program has affected her and her children’s lives in countless ways. She has three children with special needs at home, while two other children volunteered with the Friendship Circle. Her son, Rabbi Tzvi Schectman, directs the West Bloomfield Friendship Circle’s Friends at Home Program.

“For several years I had heard about Friendship Circle,” said the mother, a resident of Milwaukee. “When our daughter Chanie went to high school in Oak Park, Mich., she participated in Friends at Home. When Tzvi was studying in New Jersey, he participated in Friendship Circle there.”

Both children “told me how they would go to the home of a child with special needs and just hang out with them,” she continued. “Depending on the needs of the child, they might help with homework, go to the park, listen to music, play games and so on. But mostly, they became their special buddies.”

When a Friendship Circle opened in Milwaukee, Schectman rushed to take advantage of the new service.

“Here was the opportunity for my children to have Jewish friends,” she explained. “Sunday mornings, all three children anxiously await the volunteers’ arrival, because they know they will be doing something special.”

The mother then detailed how the Milwaukee volunteers went out of their way to enable her and her husband to attend a family wedding in South Africa. Friendship Circle staff went over a schedule spanning six days, with all of the children’s routines and activities planned to the minute.

“I thought this was not going to work, but all they said as they were taking notes was, ‘Okay. What’s next?’ They were totally undaunted,” said Schectman. “They meant business.”

The trip went off without a hitch.

Raizel Schectman addresses the Friendship Circle.
Raizel Schectman addresses the Friendship Circle.

Continued Expansion

At the appreciation event, several volunteers shared what the program had done for them.

Matt Luckoff, a high school senior who conducts home visits, said that he learned “that every child is unique and extraordinary. Spending time with them not only shapes their future, but molds us into better people.”

Lisa Shapiro, meanwhile, said that the program has changed how she views children with special needs.

Instead of seeing them “as having flaws,” she explained, “I can see how unique they are and embrace their differences, and learn from them.”

Rabbi Levi and Bassie Shemtov, co-founders of the Friendship Circle, also spoke at the event, which began with a dessert buffet and a tour of the program’s campus and its 5,000-square-foot Weinberg Life Village, a mock-up of a town center used by special education classes to acclimate children with special needs to daily life outside of the home.

In her remarks, Bassie Shemtov made note of the program’s growth. Since its founding in 1994 under the auspices of the Lubavitch Foundation of Michigan, it has grown to serve communities in all of the 50 United States, other countries, and has even won recognition from the Queen of England.

For his part, Levi Shemtov pledged that the Friendship Circle would continue to expand, the current state of the economy notwithstanding.

“Sometimes the greatest ingredient to survival is the idea that failure is never an option,” he said. “We have been through a stress test. But with G‑d’s help, not only did we not cut back on programs, we were even able to meet the increased demand for our services and add new programs as necessary.”