Guest Blogger Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Co-founder of Friendship Circle International and Co- founder and Director of Friendship Circle of Michigan
Society has come a long way in the last generation in relation to how we care .for people who have disabilities. These individuals now have access to doctors, therapists and specialized schools. The country’s ethical standards are far higher than in the past and today, society is a safer place them.
However, upon moving to Michigan 17 years ago, my wife Bassie and I began meeting families with a child with special needs who had an aching need for their children to be included in the community, a need that was not being met.
After a long day of school and visits to their friendly and compassionate doctors and therapists, these children would come home. There were no play dates with friends, no visits to restaurants or stores, for fear of judgmental stares from strangers. And there were definitely no birthday parties or sports teams to join.
Friendship, as we all know, has the ability to change a person’s life. Friendship gives us confidence in our abilities, our ability to communicate, our relational skills and the warmth of belonging to a community.
As Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries, my wife and I are inspired by our Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory. The Rebbe taught that within each person is a soul and that soul is sacred and worthy, no matter what limitations may surround it.
In 1994, with the Rebbe’s inspiration in our hearts, we decided to dedicate our lives to fulfilling those parents’ aching need with the establishment of the Friendship Circle.
Perhaps the most rewarding revelation of our past 17 years in operation is that individuals with disabilities have the ability to completely transform the volunteers into more whole, compassionate and tolerant individuals. The more we accept these precious people into our lives, the better we become as people, as families and as a community.
The Friendship Circle of Michigan is now housed in a 28,000 square foot facility known as Ferber Kaufman LifeTown. Our facility contains the brand new Elkus Gymnasium, an activity wing with eight therapy rooms, a parent lounge, a volunteer lounge and a 5,000 square foot cityscape known as Weinberg Village. This realistic, indoor village is complete with eight storefronts, streets, sidewalks and working stoplights. Each year, over 3,000 local public school students with special needs visit Weinberg Village to gain critical life-skill training such as time management, money management and communication skills.
Today, our work also continues on a much larger scale with the development of over 80 Friendship Circle locations around the globe. The Ruderman Family Foundation has been a crucial friend to several Friendship Circle locations and their support has enabled our circle of friendship to continue growing and transforming the communities in which they are founded.
However, I believe that, the most important accomplishment of our work happens when families start noticing a difference in attitudes when they go out into the community. After several Friendship Circle families shared with us their personal stories, we decided to create this docu-drama of one family’s true story. I think you will find this short, 7-minute film shines a light on the power of friendship and its reach into the community at-large. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCWnJwm3FYI
— Rabbi Levi Shem Tov