Tools for life

It's hard to decide whether this groundbreaking facility for special-needs children gives more to its guests or volunteers.

happy people 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
happy people 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
From the outside, the Friendship Circle building is impressive. From the inside, it's an absolute marvel. Nestled in a clearing in the woods of this Detroit suburb, the 2,000-square-meter facility is the biggest draw in the area for children with special needs - and a dream come true for the Chabad Hassidim who conceived the groundbreaking facility. Friendship Circle is a wonderland for kids who have attention deficit disorders, autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy - anybody who feels awkward and anybody, says founder Bassie Shemtov, "who just needs a friend." What separates this project from the standard special-needs care is not so much the karaoke, the martial arts classes, the laser tag parties or even the Hanukka carnival. It is, first and foremost, the bond between the "guests," as Shemtov calls them, and the young volunteers who offer them their friendship. "I love to stand in the lobby when the kids come in and see how they and the volunteers react to each other," she says. "I love to see the special-needs kids just light up... and the joy in the volunteer's eyes, to see how excited they are to be with their child. How could you not smile when you see someone who loves you so much?" The kids interact in a state-of-the-art facility designed to wow them. There's a room where they can play musical instruments or take dance classes; a computer room (with touch screens for kids with limited motor skills) with interactive games that encourage the children's creativity; an art room; a tactile room; a gross motor skills room with therapeutic hanging swings, padded walls and floor and a rock climbing wall. A water room featuring a variety of spigots, showerheads, sprinkler systems and taps provides water play for children - including a system that can imitate rain and the sound of thunder, to help anxious children overcome their fear of storms. A relaxation room based on the Scandinavian "snoezelen" model, featuring soothing multisensory stimulation (such as strings of fiber optic cables with multicolored lights, pillows and soft music) that helps those with special needs de-stress. A gymnasium offers basketball courts, a large trampoline and a "cheese pit" of foam rubber chunks that practically demands kids jump into it. A mini apartment - with full-service kitchen - and a laundry room allow children to practice housekeeping skills they'll need to function on their own. All the rooms have windows that allow parents and professional caregivers to keep tabs on the children. When they arrive, the kids choose a room to go to with their buddy, typically spending about half an hour there. When they come back, they can choose any other room that is available. One lounge caters to the teenage volunteers, with a pool table, video games and a slushee machine. Another lounge - more subdued, and featuring coffee instead of slushees - offers a quiet get-away for the adult volunteers and the parents of the special-needs children. DOWNSTAIRS IS LifeTown, a unique activity "village" that uses role play to help special-needs kids develop life skills they need outside of protective environments. Leading a tour of the 450-square-meter "indoor city," Shemtov points out the various attractions that the children can visit. There's the bank, where children are given a few dollars to spend; the pet store, where they learn to care for animals; the "medical center," where adult volunteers help the kids get accustomed to visiting the dentist and having a doctor weigh them, examine their eyesight, etc.; the movie theater, where they can catch a film while overcoming their fear of the dark; the hairstyling salon and beauty parlor, which specializes in helping children sensitive to touch become accustomed to the grooming services the rest of us take for granted; the arts-and-crafts workshop; the library, which lets them check out books; the corner store; and the always popular ice cream cart. All are sponsored by local businesses. Kids can ride safety bicycles around a "street" that runs through the village - but they have to beware, because if they don't obey the traffic signals, a volunteer "traffic cop" will give them a "ticket." "These are such important skills for kids to have," Shemtov says, stopping under the huge tree at the center of the village that stretches up into the lobby, two stories above. "To them, of course, it's just fun." While the activities up on the main floor are generally for kids coming to Friendship Circle after school, LifeTown caters to groups from area schools, some who come from more than an hour away. "Every morning, this place is packed with 50 or 60 kids," Shemtov says. The building is certainly unique. But what makes it work, she says, is the enthusiasm of the more than 800 volunteers who keep it running - especially the teen volunteers. At first, interaction with the children is a shock for them, and each time a volunteer is bitten or drooled on by their "buddy," Shemtov worries that they'll never come back. "But they do," she says, a smile taking over her face. "It's really amazing to see how volunteers get attached to their special friend. What starts out as something awkward and difficult turns into love and passion. These volunteers, who start out as typical teenagers, are transformed into really caring individuals." While Friendship Circle serves the entire community, and volunteering is open to anyone, Shemtov estimates that as many as 90 percent of the volunteers are Jewish. The youth volunteers typically come to Friendship Circle around bar/bat mitzva age. Most keep it up through high school, and many continue into college, spending vacations at the Friendship Circle with the children with whom they have bonded. Adult volunteers who help run the LifeTown skills village commit to coming twice a month. The teens commit to volunteering once a week. "But a lot of them come three times a week," Shemtov says. "They just love being here." YOU CAN tell the kind of impact that the Friendship Circle has had just by counting the number of purple Friendship Circle magnets adorning cars all over this area. Local businesses and major national corporations have thrown their support behind Friendship Circle, joining several donors in Detroit's Jewish community in making the $5 million facility possible. What is today a burgeoning program started 14 years ago with a much smaller, simpler idea. Bassie's husband, Rabbi Levy Shemtov, had established Friendship House, a Jewish home for those struggling with addiction. Bassie felt that, aside from all the therapy and education that they receive, special-needs children largely miss out on true friendship. Bassie, a sixth-grade teacher with no special-needs training, set out to fix that. At first she arranged visits to special-needs children at their homes, expanding the Friendship Circle with outings and events at local attractions. As that started to gather momentum, she convened a focus group of interested donors who talked about building an open-air park at a cost of around $100,000. When one of the donors noted that Michigan's climate was not the most hospitable to open-air venues, that didn't stop Bassie, whose plans only grew. To round out her vision, Shemtov traveled the country, visiting special-needs facilities and learning from the experience of experts in the field. At each turn, the project took on greater dimensions. "When we were designing this facility," says Levy, "we asked people at therapy centers across the country: 'What do you like about your facility?' and 'What would your dream be?' [Then] we incorporated every dream from every therapy center." Bassie, a slender dynamo now in her mid-30s, planned it out herself. "I had to learn about how lighting affects special-needs kids, how room size affects them - so many things that go into adapting a facility for them," she recalls. Putting the plan together and making it work entailed a lot of risk taking. What she wanted to create hadn't been done before, but the mother of six didn't let that stop her. "When we first opened up, we were petrified," says Shemtov. "We had no idea whether this would work. A lot of it was just guts." Taking on the responsibility of a multimillion dollar facility was daunting, however. Sure, there would be activities for kids to do after school, but "What are we going to do with this facility during the day?" Levy wondered. So Bassie worked to organize visits for special-needs schools. In the early stages, they borrowed space where possible, and rented space when they had to. When the new building was completed three years ago, the program that had begun as "Friends at Home" had found a home of its own. FOR SHEMTOV, the success of Friendship Circle is not as much in its physical expansion as in its spiritual influence, enriching volunteers at least as much as the members. "Friendship Circle has made special-needs kids cool," she jokes. But it has done so, she adds, by "showing the world that special-needs kids are not to be pitied." Friendship Circle's insistence on not pitying the special-needs children extends to the way the staff members treat the parents and the volunteers as well. "We actually thank the families for letting us share time with their children," Bassie says. "And we don't constantly say to the volunteers things like, 'Oh, you're doing such a mitzva.' The fact is, you get so much out of taking part in this. You come to Friendship Circle, and you're happy." That happiness is spreading, too. There are now scores of Friendship Circles in North America, with several more abroad. It's something of a franchise now, with a national office in New York issuing suggested guidelines for how to set up and run a Friendship Circle. Beyond a few rules, however, each "branch" is basically an independent organization. Almost all of them are affiliated with Chabad, though, and Shemtov believes that is the secret of their success. "Sometimes people think it's easier to do this than it is, and they have to shut down," she says. "For us, this is our life. We're never leaving." It is the model of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Bassie says, that guides the Shemtovs in their work. His teachings, which so influence the couple and their staff, are also prominent in Friendship Circle initiatives such as the new "imprint the world" campaign, which urges teens to actively cultivate awareness and tolerance of special needs through their actions. "I'm very happy about what we have accomplished, and I'm very proud," Bassie says. "But I know where it comes from." Friendship Circle's programs now include summer camps and winter sleepovers, a special-needs baseball league, a forum for siblings of special-needs kids and more. And the circle will only continue to widen, says Bassie. The Shemtovs want to expand the LifeTown village; they want to build more Friendship Houses for addicts, and they want to provide places for troubled teens to live when home is no longer a positive environment for them. The biggest challenge ahead, however, may lie in developing programs for those with special needs who are in their 20s. "Just yesterday," Bassie says, "I received a very emotional e-mail from a mother who is very afraid about what will happen to her child when she dies." Worrying about how their children will manage once they are gone is common for parents of special-needs children. Now it's on Bassie's mind, too. "As our members get older, we will have to grow our program to serve them. Because they're our friends," she says, "we never say good-bye."