One of the best things about being a part of this site is getting to meet people and organizations who are doing amazing things for kids with special needs and their families. Recently we became aware of The Friendship Circle in Michigan thanks to Facebook friends who linked us to their video, That Annoying Kid, which we shared here. We spoke with Bassie Shemtov, founder and director of the program via email. (By the way, you can follow her Twitter here and on Facebook here!)
The Friendship Circle offers several programs within their Ferber Kaufman LifeTown facility. The Friendship Circle has been operating since 1994 and has inspired other circles around the country. Funded primarily through private donations, The Friendship Circle recently received a $1,000,000 federal grant to create a play-therapy and anti-bullying program.
How many children are served through your program?
Overall, we have served 3,000 families with special needs. This past year, we have served over 155 schools from 42 school districts in Metro Detroit.
How are kids screened into the program?
Each family meets with our “family coordinator” to tour our facility and learn about the programs. All children are accepted into the program, so the only “screening” performed is which programs would address their particular needs the best. For example, we have children with severe Autism and we have children that are simply socially awkward. If they have any special need, we are here for them. We accept all families who feel they can benefit from our organization, no questions asked. All of our programs are infused with play therapy, social and physical therapy. So although the child is “having fun with their buddy,” they are also cultivating life skills to work on their particular needs.
Do they graduate from the program?
We have programs for young children all the way through adulthood. Therefore, most of our kids never graduate. They grow with us. Friendship Circle is more like a community, rather than a temporary institution.
How are volunteers recruited?
Most of volunteers arrive at our doors from word of mouth. They hear about their friend’s volunteer work and want to get involved. In our early years, we went straight to the local high schools for direct recruiting. Many teens need service hours fulfilled for graduation, Bar/Bat mitzvahs, etc. But as more and more requests for volunteering opportunities came in, we began to realize that these teens were gaining much more than just service hours. They were learning life lessons from their special friends such as non-judgment, unconditional love and patience. These morale-boosting lessons are what really keep our volunteers coming through the door. Their special friends don’t care what clothes their teen is wearing. They don’t care if their teen is popular or not. It’s a unique, deeply personal experience that changes their life for the better.
How do you help build other friendship circles around the country?
As the founding branch of now 80 locations worldwide, we are the test-pilot for many of the new programs. Basically, we brainstorm new programs, campaigns, events, etc. We try them out here, develop the tools needed to execute them and if it is a success…we share them with the other FC’s. Each year, we have a Friendship Circle International conference where the 80 locations gather for a 3 day round-table style retreat. We all bring new ideas to the table and distribute the information to all. (Note: To see if there is a Friendship Circle near you, check the web site here.)
What was your impetus for starting the program?
My husband and I moved to Michigan in 1994. We originally began Friendship Circle to serve individuals struggling with addiction, isolation and other family related crises. Our method was to take individuals who were already in active pursuit of recovery and help reintegrate them into society through life skill training such as job searching, spiritual guidance, counseling, 12 step meetings, etc.
During our first few months in the Metro Detroit community, we noticed an overwhelming need for community inclusion for individuals with special needs as well. Families with special needs were another group, pushed onto the fringes of society and excluded from many community events/programs. And although they had access to doctors and therapies, they were facing social segregation from a community lacking education about their neighbors with special needs. So we simply began coordinating teens to visit the homes of children with special needs for one hour per week. The child would receive a friend to play with and the family would receive much needed respite.
The idea caught on like wildfire and 16 years later, we have a 28,000 square foot facility. Inside our facility is a 5,000 square foot life-like village with eight storefronts, a park and working intersections. Inside “Weinberg Village” as it’s called, we teach 155 local schools various life-skills in a safe environment, tailored to their special needs. Eventually, our addiction support services thrived and branched out to form The Daniel B. Sobel Friendship House.