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Dani Gillman
BY Dani Gillman

Expanding Circles of Friendship

There is a story about the ficus tree in the middle of a building.

And one about a girl whose self-esteem had bottomed out.

And one about a donor whose wife wanted to keep money in Michigan.

Bassie Shemtov weaves these stories into my tour of The Friendship Circle, an extraordinarily successful non-profit that serves young people with – and without – disabilities through a unique West Bloomfield campus.

Bassie is extending an invitation to a June 6 event that any blogger or journalist would be crazy to turn down. No matter what you write about, The Friendship Circle is a place you should visit. We all need to know more about what life is like for people with disabilities.

This invitation comes with a special incentive: an inside look at how a non-profit with very little social media presence ended up with 15,000 new Facebook friends and a $100,000 prize, in the Chase Community Giving program.

If you’re already interested, her contact information is at the end of this post. If you have your doubts or you’re not sure it’ll be worth your while, let me tell you what you would be missing. Because if you had seen what I’ve seen, you would do what I’m doing.

You would be there.

The tour

I drove to West Bloomfield on a day when the sun was shining and the sky was blue. I thought the non-profit Bassie co-founded with her husband, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, 15 years ago was a kind of club that supported a buddy program that pairs teenagers with kids who have special needs. It is that, and so much more.

After checking in at the front desk, I took a little time to walk around the circular reception room, admiring the artistic way The Friendship Circle recognizes donors. And then I realized there was a tree growing out of a large hole in the floor.

You don’t often see a tree growing in a building, it made an impression. As I leaned over the clear wall surrounding the treetop, I could see tricycles neatly arranged and a park-like setting.

In the basement. A tree. A park. This was shaping up to be nothing like what I anticipated.

When Bassie arrived, we set off on a tour of the main floor, starting with a room any teenager would love: slushie machine, television, video games, comfortable furniture. Volunteers hang out here until their special friends arrive. Bassie’s voice warms as she talks about these young people and their dedication, how this experience of friendship with a person with special needs changes their lives.

“These teens love their kids,” she says. “It’s mind-boggling to see. They grow in confidence and self-esteem.”

Life-changing experiences

Bassie talks about a girl whose behavioral problems led her grandmother to call The Friendship Circle: “We let her volunteer on our Cedar Point trip, and this kid with a terrible self-image just had a day when she was with kids who didn’t care what she looked like.” After the trip, someone called the grandmother to tell her what a wonderful young woman her granddaughter was.

That kind of life-changing experience happens often, as even rebellious teens lower their guard. They learn kids with special needs care about them, not their clothes or their looks, Bassie says.

The Ferber-Kaufman Lifetown building has a lounge where parents can relax or pick up new ideas about therapy or just support one another. Other first-floor rooms meet specific therapeutic needs. There is a room with activities that help build gross motor skills, a room for dancing and drumming, a fully functional kitchen, a room where low lights and a bubble tube and soft, heavy strings of moving lights calm and soothe children for whom the day has been too much.

My favorite was the tiled shower, where it doesn’t matter how messy you get, because everything washes away. And sometimes, water falls from a rain showerhead and the lightning flashes and the thunder rolls, to desensitize a child afraid of storms.

But all this is only part of what The Friendship Circle offers. We step carefully down a spiral staircase and walk out into a park.

Lessons in the village

The unusual ficus tree rises above a tiny town square. The streets in Weinberg Village wind around miniature store fronts, and the intersections are controlled by traffic lights. If you walk before the light changes, a kindly police officer will issue you a ticket.

The ticket must be paid in cash. I waited for the lights.

In the center of town, a young woman prepares her ice cream cart for the day’s customers. Volunteer shopkeepers chat and smile as the “townspeople” finally arrive. A group of Pontiac Schools students with special needs walk into a large meeting room, where they are all issued a wallet and a withdrawal slip. At a small Huntington Bank branch, the teller provides each child with cash drawn from their account, which they may use anyway they choose. And the choices aren’t easy: Take in a movie with popcorn, shop at the Sav On drug store, get your nails done, visit the craft store. There are tricycles to rent, treats to buy.

In all of this choosing, some important lessons emerge. Students are in the village for just a few hours. So instead of waiting in line at the bank, they may decide to return a library book or run another errand. If they use all of their money on treats for themselves, they will have nothing to purchase gifts for others.

“They handle their own money, it’s all real,” Bassie explains, “and if they lose it or splurge… oh well, it’s gone. The next time, they know not to blow all their money.”

Generous donors

The Friendship Circle wants to expand these real life experiences. The vision is a 50,000-square-foot space that will house a restaurant, a Kinko’s and Starbucks.

“We want to provide real training for our older students, job training and higher level life skills,” Bassie said. “The sky’s the limit. The goal will be these adults will go out and get real jobs. I don’t think this dream is too far out.”

When you dream big, you need large, generous contributions. Even in this economy, Friendship Circle has done well. The Walk4Friendship, held September 5 this year, has been wildly successful. About a year ago, an elderly donor came forward who originally wanted to start The Friendship Circle in California. His wife convinced him to keep the money in Michigan, and now a brand news gymnasium is under construction.

There are far more Friendship Circle stories. That’s why Bassie is inviting media and bloggers out to see the place on Sunday, June 6, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and learn more about what it’s like to live with a disability. She’s also offering a look inside how an organization with a very small social media presence and an even smaller Facebook circle ended up with 15,000 new friends and a $100,000 prize.

If you saw what I saw, if you heard what I heard, you would do what I’m doing.

You would be there, too.

To RSVP, contact Bassie Shemtov at (248) 788-7878 ext. 212 or [email protected]

This Post was written by Joni Hubred-Golden originally appeared in the Michigan Women’s Forum.

Dani Gillman

Written on June 2, 2010 by:

Dani Gillman is Cofounder and Head of Marketing at Birdhouse– a Detroit-based startup empowering parents raising children with special needs to learn more about their children through a behavior journaling app for iPhone, Android and the web. She’s also mom to a 11 year old daughter (who happens to have Autism) and a 2 year old son (who doesn’t appreciate naps as much as his mother does).

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