Game Changers: A Volunteer Recognition Event Recap

On Monday, May 23, the Friendship Circle and its members gathered at the Berman Theater in the Jewish Community Center, in West Bloomfield, Michigan, to honor the countless volunteers who have given their time over the last year.

The event was attended by well over four hundred people, including families, volunteers, local community members, and Friendship Circle supporters. Opening remarks were given by Friendship Circle parent Valerie Lane, who reflected on her experiences being the mother of a daughter with special needs.

Friendship Circle parent and opening speaker Valerie Lane.

The theme of the event was “Game Changers”… how the Friendship Circle and its staff have changed the status quo for people with special needs, giving them new opportunities, and the respect they deserve.

Rabbi Yarden Blumstein.

Teen Volunteer Coordinator Rabbi Yarden Blumstein.

Rabbi Yarden Blumstein, Teen Volunteer Coordinator, spoke next. He discussed how the idea of game changers relates to the Biblical tale of the receiving of the Torah, how the Israelites had to wait fifty days to finally receive it. People with special needs have had to wait years to be respected by the world at large, and the Friendship Circle has helped to bring that day closer to the present.

Friendship Circle co-founder Rabbi Levi Shemtov.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, co-founder of the organization, spoke about the founding of Friendship Circle twenty-one years ago. Originally, he and his wife, fellow co-founder Bassie Shemtov, personally drove teen volunteers to the homes of children with special needs. The waiting list to become a volunteer grew over time, and by 2005, they had a space of their own where volunteers and their matched “friends” could interact with one another.

Honored teen volunteers who had logged 50, 100, 150, 200 or more hours at Friendship Circle.

Teen Volunteer Presidents being recognized at the event.

Teen volunteers were honored based on the number of hours they had put in with Friendship Circle, as well as male and female Presidents of the Volunteer Club.

Honoring Ed Krass

Ed Krass, an adult volunteer was given a special honor, including a short film about his life, and the gift of a monogrammed sports jacket reading “Coach Ed”. Ed has been the sports instructor for the Friendship Circle since 2010, following a lengthy career in sports education in public schools. He spoke about how, after retirement from education, he was unsure where his life would go. He found a new purpose in the Friendship Circle, and continuing to work with kids.

Remembering Alex Bruni

The night was not without tears shed. Last year, Alex Bruni, a long-time Friendship Circle volunteer with aspirations of attending medical school passed away. His sister spoke of his kindness, his “contagious smile”, and his generosity.

Friendship Circle co-founder Bassie Shemtov then recalled how, years ago, Alex had been paired with Danny, a friend who had had difficulty connecting with his volunteers. However, when paired with Alex, Bassie remembers how he began to grow and develop under Alex’s guidance. After Alex’s death, Bassie brought Danny to the Friendship Circle to add his touch to a plaque honoring his and Alex’s friendship, and immediately Danny recalled his favorite volunteer.

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Friendship Circle. co-founder Bassie Shemtov and the Bruni family.

Bassie presented the Bruni family with a memorial plaque to be placed in a table at the Friendship Circle’s new Soul Cafe.

Gamechanger Anthony Ianni

The event ended with a speech from the only person with autism to ever play Division I college basketball, Anthony Ianni, an alumnus of Michigan State University and motivational speaker.

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Former Big Ten basketball player and motivational speaker Anthony Ianni.

He spoke of his experiences growing up having autism, and how, as a child, no one believed he would amount to anything. He attended Grand Valley State University for two years, before accepting a scholarship to play basketball at MSU. He now travels the country speaking about his life.

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