Michigan Friendship Circle Breaks Ground For New Facility
Lubavitch.com, November 20, 2003
“We all grow up and have a dream that we will get married and have children. We just take it for granted that our children will be normal and healthy. Unfortunately, for some of us, that dream doesn’t always come true.”
These are the words of a mother of an autistic child in West Bloomfield, Michigan. And it is for her and thousands like her that The Friendship Circle, which pairs special needs children with teenage volunteers, was formed in 1995 by Chabad Rebbetzin Bassie Shemtov (The Friendship Circle).
What began as a small local project almost eight years ago, to help a handful of special children, has turned into a full time avocation for Bassie and her husband Rabbi Levi Shemtov and now serves over 150 children with a staff of 350 teen volunteers.
The Shemtovs could not foresee that this initial "helping hands" project would capture the imagination of so many people and metamorphose into a vital and thriving organization. The Friendship Circle has branched out and taken root in several other cities and now includes thousands of special children and equally special volunteers who have given new meaning to the word "teenager."
In a dream come true for the Michigan headquarters of The Friendship Circle, a ground-breaking ceremony was held on November 3rd, for a six-acre permanent site to be known as the Meer Family Friendship Circle Campus and the Ferber Kaufman Life Town in West Bloomfield.
The campus will be home to the myriad activities and programs of the Friendship Circle and provide a place where the children, families and volunteers can interact in a safe and loving environment.
The Life Town, part of the proposed 20,000 square foot complex is similar to a movie set. In a "ground-breaking" move, this building will recreate a virtual scale model city street. It will contain a bank, library, movie theatre, laundromat, general store, restaurant and pet shop. Each will have working, fully decorated interiors and volunteers will act as shopkeepers. The real world is a scary place for special needs children and this indoor "life village" will help them learn social and critical skills in a non-threatening and fun setting.
Also included are on-site therapy rooms and lounges for parents and volunteers. The $4.5 million dollar campus is scheduled for completion in September 2004.
Rebbetzin Bassie Shemtov can hardly wait. She says that “this novel campus, being built through the generosity of the Meer, Ferber, Kaufman, Fenkell and other caring families, represents the dawning of a new era for children with special needs in our community.”
More information about the planned campus and about the activities of the Friendship Circle is available on line at friendshipcircle.com.
Reported by Fay Kranz Greene
Group gets approval to build center for special-needs youths in West Bloomfield
By Julie Edgar,
Detroit Free Press, November 12, 2002
Like many 6-year-olds, Rebecca Fogel isn't great company in restaurants or banks.
Her disabilities may prevent her from learning to tolerate mundane activities, but because of a circle of friends -- the Friendship Circle -- at least she'll have a fighting chance.
The 8-year-old volunteer-based organization, run by Rabbi Levi Shemtov and his wife, Bassie Shemtov, recently won site plan approval from West Bloomfield to build a center to treat children with conditions ranging from autism to attention deficit disorder.
Part of the new center will be devoted to a village of functioning shops and streetlights designed to integrate children like Rebecca into the real world by teaching skills like watching a movie, getting a haircut and yes, standing in line at the bank. The center will be the organization's first permanent home.
Rebecca, diagnosed with cerebral palsy, has benefited from Friendship Circle programs for years, most notably the weekly visits a teen volunteer makes to her Bloomfield Township home. Other offerings include winter and summer camps, coaching in basketball and karate, and instruction in art and music.
Her mom, Cathleen Fogel, said Rebecca "has friends she never would've had." She's glad for Life Village, but said it will be just one more element in a package of programs she considers key to her daughter's well-being.
As crucial as its services have been to families, equally important is the impact it's had on its more than 300 volunteers, most of them teenagers, Bassie Shemtov said. The Shemtovs have four children, all of them born after they founded the Friendship Circle.
"It's not that we're lucky to have healthy children. It's lucky that these kids are able to teach us so much," she said of the volunteers. "They care about being a friend, about loving somebody."
The circle's new facility, called the Meer Family Friendship Center, is expected to be completed by the end of next year. It is to include the 20,000-square-foot Ferber-Kaufman Lifetown, which is to house Life Village and 16 rooms for therapy, and volunteer and parent lounges.
The Shemtovs hope to bring in schools, church groups and other organizations that helppeople who have special needs, including adults with closed-head injuries.
"Now we bring smiles and help and respite to the parents. With this building, we'll help parents move children along therapeutically, to help them get to a place where they can dream of having their child be independent when they grow up," Rabbi Shemtov said. "We envision school buses parked here every day to use our facilities."
The Daniel Sobel Friendship House, a second building under the aegis of the Meer center, will continue to counsel adults struggling with substance abuse problems.
The buildings will join the Shul, a synagogue that opened on the woodsy 40-acre campus in September.
Plans for the Meer project have metamorphosed since the Lubavitch Foundation of Michigan bought the land a decade ago. Four buildings became two, and those grew as the Friendship Circle realized that the need in the community had grown.
Then township environmental concerns slowed the project until developers could explainhow 3 acres of forested wetlands on the property were destroyed. Township Trustee Stuart Brickner said the township doesn't expect the foundation to revive the site, but has suggested it save trees on other parts of the property.
In the meantime, though, the township gave its blessing for the project to proceed.
"It's really a phenomenal opportunity for the community," Brickner said.
For information on Friendship Circle programs, call 248-788-7878 or go to its Web site at www.friendshipcircle.org.
Contact JULIE EDGAR at 248-586-2605 or firstname.lastname@example.org