Bravo for an Important Friendship
If Michigan was such a bad place, why would so many people choose to live here? Why would people open businesses here? Why would churches, charities, foundations and organizations do so much or spend so much money to improve our way of life?
After learning about a non-profit called the Friendship Circle, I'm convinced there is something right happening here in Southeast Michigan. If everything were so awful, there is no way a place like this should exist here. Yet it does.
A quick summary: Friendship Circle is a place where special-needs children and adults are paired with teen-age volunteers to form lasting friendships. Those with special needs also receive life-skills training so they can work and live more comfortably in society.
Imagine if you will…A wooded campus that opens up to this series of small buildings. One is a temple. One is a counseling center. The other holds this awe-inspiring thing called LifeTown, where kids experience the real world – only catered specifically to them. This tiny village of stores, pet shops and even a mini movie theater was so enchanting my children never wanted to leave.
I had three different blog sources/friends tell me I needed to see this idyllic place in West Bloomfield. Take some time, they said, and meet some of the families that use its facilities and services. I'll admit I had never heard of the Friendship Circle, so on Sunday my family I trooped out there to see what's what.
Kudos to founders and Directors Rabbi Levi and Bassie Shemtov for creating what appears to me to be a wonderland. Parent after parent gushed about how the place has changed their family – not only does their special-needs child form for many their first friendships here, but every family member receives some form of respite from a sometimes cold and ugly world.
Some background: The Meer Family Friendship Center consists of the Daniel B. Sobel Friendship House, where hundreds of community members come for help with their recovery from addiction and other related problems. Ferber Kaufman LifeTown is a place where thousands of children with special needs work with more than 800 volunteers of the Morrie and Sybil Fenkell volunteer club.
My favorite spot was the Weinberg Village, complete down to the tiniest details from real trees to songbirds. Adult volunteers staff the village – if you cross the street against the light, you receive a ticket from the Village police. He will charge you $3 to pay for it, taking away any spending money you might use at Fringe Too, the salon, or for snacks at Sav-On Drugs. There's a branch of the West Bloomfield library, where kids learn to sit quietly and check out books. There's a doctor's office sponsored by Henry Ford Medical centers that even smells like a doctor's office. Kids there learn to face their fears of that guy or gal in the white coat in a less threatening setting. Kudos to all sponsors, including Huntington Bank, for making this village possible. It is charming beyond belief -- but very practical at the same time. Kids are held to high standards and expected to follow rules. If you show up late to a job interview at one of the shops or stores, you don't get the job. If you lose your spending money, you have to turn in a police report.
This main building also has other specialized rooms where teens and their new friends can go explore music, dance, art and simple things like baking together – all things these special-needs kids must learn if they want to live alone, get a job or enjoy the same quality of life that we “normal” folks do. Thanks to a recent donation, they are adding a full-size gym, which should be open by fall for floor hockey and more. That floor-hockey team sounds like it will be amazing – a competitive group that will be half “normal” kids and half special needs, Bassie Shemtov told me.
Since the Shemtovs started Friendship Center about 15 years ago, it has grown to some 80 locations spanning seven countries. All this from a powerful couple of people, some amazing donors and hundreds upon hundreds of volunteers who make it happen.
As an aside, membership costs $400 annually for families interested in using the facilities and services. Worth every penny, I'd say. Everyone seems to know one another, and every consideration is given to make families feel comfortable and at ease.
I know as a mother of two “tradition” children, I needed mother's clubs or groups to get through these sometimes tough early years, so I cannot imagine how parents of special-needs children do it every day. But thank goodness they do. And how inspiring that there are groups like this in Michigan, giving Southeast Michigan the boost it needs to soldier through.