Nearly 5,000 people, including a U.S. Congressman and a local disc jockey, packed the streets of West Bloomfield, Mich., to raise awareness for children with special needs.

The fourth-annual Walk for Friendship benefitted the founding chapter of the Friendship Circle, an international Chabad-Lubavitch network of programs that pair teenage volunteers with children with special needs. Anchored by a fundraising walkathon, the Sept. 13 event packed a sunny afternoon with musical performances, carnival-style rides and other family-friendly forms of entertainment. All told, participants raised more than $400,000 for the Friendship Circle, which in the past few years has garnered awards for breaking down barriers for the special-needs population and their families.

Kicking off the day’s events were performances by five-year-old drumming sensation Julian Pavone, known as “The World’s Youngest Drummer” on more than 100 television appearances, and his three-year-old student, Rockin’ Ryan. The pair soon had the crowd dancing and clapping along, impressing attendees with their talent and professionalism, but at the end of the show, they quickly assumed their younger personas and climbed under Pavone’s 22-piece drum set to join the crowd.

After the performance, Rep. Gary Peters, whose ninth congressional district includes that part of suburban Detroit, took the microphone to laud the Friendship Circle and its work in integrating children with special needs into society.

Following the opening pep rally, which was emceed by local radio personality Mojo of Mojo in the Morning, the walk began, led by a police motorcade, a small contingent of horseback riders and the West Bloomfield High School band. With two routes of a mile and three miles each, the procession ended at the Meer Family Friendship Center, headquarters of the Friendship Circle.

“Friendship Circle has really opened the eyes of hundreds of volunteers and others in the community to the lessons that people with special needs can teach the rest of us,” said Bassie Shemtov, who founded the Friendship Circle in 1994 with her husband, Rabbi Levi Shemtov. “Their unconditional love for other people, their own inner beauty: These are things that all of us have come to appreciate through working with the special-needs population.”

The walk ended at the Meer Family Friendship Center in West Bloomfield.
The walk ended at the Meer Family Friendship Center in West Bloomfield.

At the Meer Family Friendship Center – home to the 5,000-square-foot indoor town known as the Weinberg Village, where children with special needs learn essential life skills – participants enjoyed a carnival complete with rides, face painting, clowns, and a rock climbing wall. Inside the center, the Shemtovs unveiled an exhibit dubbed “World’s Fair at the Shul,” celebrating Rosh Hashanah traditions in Jewish communities around the world.

Testifying to the high turnout, one caterer at the carnival reported having served 4,000 meals that afternoon. In addition to the high level of public support, all three local news stations sent crews to cover the event.

The event’s musical component also included two concerts by pianist Kodi Lee, a 13-year-old blind prodigy from Utah who can reportedly play any song note-for-note after hearing it just once. Although he has difficulty speaking due to severe autism, his singing is apparently unhindered.

“An event like this, although a fundraiser, does so much more,” said Levi Stein, a rabbinical student who helped organize the day’s festivities. “It brought the whole community together for a beautiful cause.”