Preparations for an annual walkathon benefiting the founding chapter of the Friendship Circle – a Chabad-Lubavitch network of programs that pair teenage volunteers with children with special needs – is generating a buzz among Detroit-area residents thanks to the endorsement of a local radio personality and a cadre of dedicated volunteers.

“So many people are helping us to get the word out, not only about the walk itself, but about the people involved, the individuals with special needs and their families,” says Bassie Shemtov, co-founder of the Friendship Circle, which will host a series of events beginning Aug. 23 and culminating in the Sept. 13 Walk4Friendship.

According to Shemtov – who along with her husband, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, won the Manhattan Institute’s prestigious Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2007 – the object of the campaign goes beyond raising money for the Friendship Circle. The ultimate goal, she explains, is to raise societal awareness of people with special needs and the imperative to help them live independently.

“We want as many people as possible to see our logo,” says Shemtov, “on magnets, on cars; and to stop and think about people with special needs.”

Since its inception in the suburb of West Bloomfield, Mich., in 1994, the Friendship Circle has grown to include more than 70 chapters around the world. Its founding branch includes the recently-built 23,000-square-foot Ferber Kaufman LifeTown Center, which has won national recognize for the centerpiece Weinberg Village, a life-size mockup of a town square where children and teenagers with special needs from public and private schools around the city can practice the skills necessary for independent living.

More than 3,000 families and the special-education departments of 155 area schools benefit from the Friendship Circle’s programs.

On Aug. 23, the LifeTown Center’s parking lot and grounds will be transformed into a mini-carnival for a pre-walk Family Fun Day. The day’s slate of free activities will include a moon bounce; face painting; giant slide; and car-painting event that will see volunteers paint the organization’s logo on participants’ vehicles.

Volunteers display signs during the 2007 campaign.
Volunteers display signs during the 2007 campaign.

Two years ago, almost 100 cars were painted with the temporary logo at a similar event. This year, organizers hope that between 500 and 1,000 people will have their cars painted.

“We hope that through the publicity generated by these events, through the awareness that they raise, everyone’s hearts and minds will open, and they will better understand kids and adults with special need and how much they have to offer,” says Shemtov.

Joining the publicity campaign is Detroit radio host Mojo, who has invited listeners of his “Mojo in the Morning” show to show their support by volunteering at the family fun day, handing out cotton candy, snow cones and other treats.

On Sept. 10, the Zieben Mare boutique in nearby Franklin will host a mini-event to register people for the walk-a-thon, serving light refreshments throughout the day. The store will donate 15 percent of its profits that day to the Friendship Circle.

According to Shemtov, organizers are hoping to draw more than 5,000 participants to the walkathon three days later. Last year’s walk drew more than 3,000 people, and raised $360,000.