Tag Archives: Alumni

There are moments in life that shape who we become. For Zach Firestone, his days as a Friendship Circle teen volunteer were defining moments. Zach is the co-founder of Welzoo.com, along with Jonathan Kaufman and Artur Fruman. Together, they built an online vehicle for supporting over 1.6 million charities just by browsing the internet. His company’s philanthropic mission is not by chance, it was a deliberate idea inspired by his time at the Friendship Circle.

Zach first got involved with the Friendship Circle just before his bar mitzvah and became a devoted volunteer in high school. The incredible facility lured him in, but the people inside kept him coming back.

Zach Firestone Friendship Circle Volunteer

Jonathan Kaufman (left) and Zach Firestone (right) volunteering at Friendship Circle in 2008

The Friends of Lifetown program gave purpose to his adolescent years and showed him the power of being there for someone else. After being paired with his special friend Danny Jonas, he saw the world more clearly through very different eyes. It wasn’t long before he realized what the bond between two people is capable of.

Volunteering at Friendship Circle

Zach Firestone Volunteering at Friendship Circle in 2009

With time and additional life experience, came the achievement of a dream long in the making. As Welzoo.com continues to grow, Zach was kind enough to sit down with us and discuss how he and his partners got the idea off the ground.

Friendship Circle : How did the Friendship Circle affect your career path?               

Zach Firestone: Friendship Circle taught me that an individual has the power to significantly impact someone’s life. Bassie and Levi Shemtov are key examples of that. Their mission taught me that the simplest thing, pushing someone on a swing or helping with an art project, can do so much. Friendship Circle also gave me a foundation of how nonprofits work. A few years ago there was a gathering of Friendship Circle alumni volunteers, in the hopes of coming together in support of the organization. That was a really tough thing for people my age to do as we were just getting started in our careers and were unavailable. I started thinking of ways to make that easier and the Welzoo idea was born.

FC: Other than deciding to work for yourself, what was the single most important decision you made that contributed to your success?                                                                                  

ZF: Talking to everyone about the idea and gaining the feedback that contributed to a better user experience. If we had just pushed out a page on the spot then the idea would’ve failed, the online space is too competitive. We needed the user to feel engaged from the start.

FC: Has Welzoo’s philanthropic foundation made it easier to stick by it and ensure its success?

ZF: Absolutely. We toyed with the idea of letting users keep the money, but that went against the values that inspired this company. It’s all about making charity an accessible priority for the younger generation and Welzoo makes it fun and easy to do.

Zach Firestone Welzoo

Co-founders of Welzoo.com Zach Firestone (right) and Artur Fruman (left) in their Manhattan office.

FC: What habits make you successful?                                                                                                

ZF: Seeking out good investors and utilizing the power of word of mouth. We also found the value in finding the right environment to work in. We’ve recently relocated to NYC and work in a collaborative office space where various startups help each other build on ideas.

FC: How do you conquer moments of doubt that often stop so many young entrepreneurs in their tracks? What pushes you through?                                                                                      

ZF: Keeping perspective and having an overall goal is key. Holding onto what we originally wanted to accomplish and remembering that it’s attainable. Sometimes an alternative route is necessary to make it happen. We were lucky to have had Friendship Circle believe in our idea from the beginning, and it wasn’t long before we knew that we had something valuable on our hands and to stick by it.

FC: If you could go back in time to day one of your startup, what lessons would you tell your former self in hopes of saving time and stress?                                                                    

ZF: I would’ve planned better. Thinking that so many things were impossible to predict wasn’t always the case. Sit down with an accountant, sit down with a lawyer. Write out a business plan. Some things actually are set in stone and then you’re making room for the unpredictable items that will inevitably fall in your lap. Also, learn that spending money will help produce the greatest return. Don’t take the cheap or easy way out, it will cost you more in the long run.

5 Tips from Zach for Today’s Young Entrepreneur

1. Do something you’re absolutely passionate about.

The most successful ventures are the ones built on love and sincerity. If you put your heart and soul into what you do, you’re that much more likely to accomplish your goals and impact others by emotional contagion.

2. Drop the ego.

Young entrepreneurs think they know everything. They do not. I know very little and learn every day. Once you accept that successful people made loads of their own mistakes along the way, you’ll be more honest with yourself about where you need to improve. You’re not Bill Gates just yet, so don’t act like it.

3. Consult with everyone.

This is a natural continuation of #2. Once you’ve established an idea as yours, get all the advice that you can. You may think it’s perfect, but you have just one subjective opinion: yours. There are plenty of people who have gone through the obstacles that you are now, and they can point you in the right direction each step along the way. Your idea and process will be infinitely improved by seeking and considering the advice of all different kinds of people.

4. Develop a clear mission.

This one sounds obvious, but it usually isn’t. It’s amazing to have a great idea, but that won’t take you all the way. You need to sit down and decide exactly what your mission is, and then use it to build your plan of action. Otherwise, it gets way too messy and things can fall apart.

5. Think differently and be bold.

This is the key. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Do something new. Don’t do what everyone else is doing! You need to set yourself apart. You need to be the most effective one in your field, and that won’t be accomplished by mimicking their actions. When you come up with a creative marketing idea, do it. Don’t worry about possible failure. You miss all the shots you don’t take, right? 

Visit Welzoo.com today to start contributing to your cause of choice.

5 Ways Volunteering at Friendship Circle Changed My Life

5 Ways Volunteering at Friendship Circle Changed My Life

From the time she was a freshman in high school, Melissa Baughman (now Melissa Ferry) was hooked on Friendship Circle.

From 2001-2005 Melissa was one of the most active members of the Morrie and Sybil Fenkell Volunteer Club, participating in sunday programs, winter camp, overnight camp and Friendship Circle’s annual trip to Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky Ohio.

For Melissa, it wasn’t about the amount of volunteer hours she got that mattered. It was about the relationships she made and the friendship she provided to the children she worked with. Before long, Melissa was connecting with several families who had children with special needs and offering to helping in addition to her school work and Friendship Circle activities.

In 2005 Melissa moved on to college at Michigan State University. Having developed a passion for working with children with special needs , Melissa knew that majoring in special education was the right direction to go in. Despite being an hour away from Friendship Circle in East Lansing, Melissa would ask her parents to pick her up every weekend so that she could still volunteer at Friendship Circle.

Recognizing her passion and her tireless commitment for volunteering, Friendship Circle offered Melissa a part-time position during her college career, which involved her coordinating and assisting in the facilitation of the Torah Teens Sunday program.

In Photos


Upon graduating college, Melissa was offered a position in Mount Pleasant, MI as a special education teacher at an elementary school, working with students from kindergarten through fourth grade. She’s also worked hard to obtain her Masters degree in special education from Central Michigan University.

13 Years after she first started volunteering we asked Melissa what made Friendship Circle so special to her. Below is her response.

5 Ways Friendship Circle Changed My Life

By Melissa Ferry

1. I learned patience

I have always been a type A personality who is driven by structure, rules and a need for control. At a young age, Friendship Circle taught me the values of patience and flexibility. A child with a disability (or any child for that matter) is not always going to follow your plans.

I learned patience as I waited for a child at the Friendship Circle with a stuttering disorder to share their thoughts, because I knew I couldn’t interrupt.

I waited patiently as children with fine motor difficulties attempted to complete the art projects during Sunday Circle, knowing I’d cause them frustration if I just strung the beads for them.

I practiced patience as I visited a Friendship Circle student’s home to tutor him and, week after week, he was upset with my presence, until he finally learned to trust me.

Our relationship blossomed into one of genuine friendship and compassion for one another.

2. I learned behavior management strategies

I remember my second year of volunteering at Friendship Circle we took a trip to Cedar Point. On this trip, one of the children became distraught over wanting a stuffed animal at the gift shop. Neither she nor I had money to spend and she quickly became very upset. This was my first experience with handling behavior.

I also remember one Sunday Circle when a child refused to participate in one of the activities. I learned the value of a “first, then” strip (although I didn’t have one at the time or even know the name of it) and how beneficial it is to pair a non-preferred choice with a preferred activity. I was able to successfully get this child to participate in the activity with the promise of allowing him 10 minutes on his portable DVD player that he carried with him.

This is still a strategy I use today in my own classroom and students know it as “you choose” time. I often have a “first, then” strip, with first being the task they need to complete (I.e writing) and then “you choose”.

3. I learned to appreciate the world through a child’s eyes

At the Friendship Circle, every child is accepted, valued and treated as a respected individual. It is not their disability that is the focus of the program, but their feelings and sense of happiness.

Because of this, I was able to witness the pure joy and excitement of a child seeing their friend after 6 days apart, the giddy rush of shopping in life town for ingredients in a recipe they would later make, and the thrill of loading a bus to go on their first sleep away camp in the summer at Camp Tanuga.

During my time at Friendship Circle, I watched children who did not take anything for granted, who appreciated the small things in life, and truly thrived off small acts of kindness and genuine friendships.

4. I learned I could make a difference

During my last year at Friendship Circle, a teen drew me a picture and a beautiful note was written on the back about how special she found our friendship to be. I think about that day she sweetly handed it to me and I still get emotional.

I also recall how I attended one Friendship Circle teen’s Bar Mitzvah, and how his extended family knew who I was and came up to me to tell me how truly amazing it was that Friendship Circle sent people into his life that really cared and supported him.

Over the years, kids grow, mature, and change because of Friendship Circle’s volunteers and the positive difference they make in each child’s life.

5. I learned my life’s calling and chose a profession

Because of how Friendship Circle changed my life, as outlined above, I recognized that I wanted to continue to impact the life of a child far beyond my time spent volunteering at Friendship Circle.

After my high school career and upon acceptance to Michigan State University, I quickly declared myself as a special education major. I now hold both a Bachelors and a Masters degree in special education and am in my fifth year teaching a K — 4 resource class with students of varying disabilities including ASD, SLD, SLI, EI, OHI and CI.

I largely contribute my life choices and my success to the experience of volunteering at the Friendship Circle.