Generous 5-Year Grant Helps UMatter Grow

An extraordinary gift will help make a profound difference in the lives of teens across metro Detroit.

The Friendship Circle’s UMatter teen program received a five-year grant from the Andrew Kukes Foundation for Social Anxiety, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based nonprofit that works throughout the country to raise awareness about the diagnosis and treatment of social anxiety disorders.

Nearly 40 people gathered for a celebratory brunch Sunday at Friendship House, where a plaque commemorating the new partnership was unveiled.

This generous gift to UMatter is symbolic of the groups’ shared mission to give voice – and hope – to people who are struggling in isolation, says Rabbi Yarden Blumstein, head of teen engagement for The Friendship Circle.

“I’m really excited about it,” Blumstein says. “It’s a wonderful gift and opportunity.”

Embracing Beautiful Souls

Before introducing UMatter and Kukes Foundation representatives during the ceremony, Friendship Circle founder Rabbi Levi Shemtov shared his thoughts about UMatter and its vital purpose in the teen community. He went on to speak to the community at large. To all those out there who are suffering from mental illness or other isolating circumstances, he said:

“Each one of you has a beautiful soul. We need you to have that message, hold that message, keep that message and breathe that message.”

Jeff Kukes – the father of the foundation’s namesake, Andrew Kukes – told the crowd just how much the UMatter partnership means to the Kukes family – which established the foundation in the wake of Andrew’s death with the hope of reaching others who live in the shadow of social anxiety.

“Our Andy started having problems in high school so I think this program is really essential for high school kids,” Kukes said of UMatter. “Andy’s been gone for over eight years now and the wounds are still raw. Every morning when I wake up, it doesn’t go away.”

He added that Andy would have been happy about the foundation’s partnership with UMatter.

“He was the kind of guy that wanted to help other people,” Kukes said. “He would be proud.”

Tackling Tough Subjects

The 10-member UMatter board seeks to shed light on the crises many teens face – often in silence. From addiction and mental illness to suicide prevention, UMatter tackles the tough subjects through community events and UMatter Week – a teen empowerment program at area schools that features teacher TED talks, essay contests, hallway decorations, training to help teens identify peers in crisis and more.

UMatter launched two years ago but has gained significant traction in the past year, Blumstein says. And the Kukes Foundation grant will help the teens bring to fruition their growing list of goals.

Efforts to achieve those goals are already under way, he says, including the creation of a UMatter website and the expansion of UMatter Week, tentatively set for Nov. 6-10. The program launched last year at West Bloomfield High School and is set to expand to six metro Detroit schools this year, with the goal of recruiting 10 schools.

The plans don’t stop there, says Nicole Kahan, 17, a longtime volunteer at Friendship Circle and UMatter board president.

The board’s visionary members have also talked about creating weekend workshops for teens, a helpline app for kids in crisis, support groups and a blog for teens to express their feelings about life – both the good and the bad.

“We want to impact at least one person,” says Kahan, who attends Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield. “And connect with teens as individuals because each teen is different and their experiences are different.”

The Kukes Foundation grant will allow the board to reach more kids who desperately need a lifeline, Kahan adds.

“There was a lot we wanted to do but we didn’t have the money,” she says. “Now, we can make a bigger impact on the community.

“I think we have a really good base and a lot to work with.”

And there are so many teens out there who just need to be heard and reassured that they do matter as they encounter challenges – both the big and the small.

“We also want to help teens who need a little extra support when school is too hard or when friends are a little too annoying,” Kahan says. “We want them to know they have someplace to turn.”

Click HERE to learn more about UMatter or to get involved. 

Cover Photo: Scott Wasserman Gallery Photos: Alex Scharg

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