Tag Archives: Volunteers

Big Dreams on Two Wheels – Friendship Circle Hosts iCan Bike Camp

They came, they biked, and, best of all, they beamed with pride.

Such was the scene Tuesday at West Bloomfield High School, where children with special needs made lap after lap around the gym, during Day 2 of the five-day iCan Bike camp hosted by Friendship Circle.

With the help of nearly 20 young volunteers and program staffers, participants made tremendous strides toward reaching their goal of riding a bicycle all on their own. Whether it was wearing a helmet for the first time or quickly rounding the orange cones on specially-equipped bikes with little help from spotters, each child triumphed on his or her own terms.
Rounds of applause and words of encouragement filled the room, in true Friendship Circle fashion.

“iCan Bike is an awesome way to get families connected with Friendship Circle and to tell them all about who we are and what we do,” said Erin Berry, Friendship Circle program manager. “This also helps us connect with the wider community as a whole – and building supportive connections is what Friendship Circle is all about.”

The weeklong camp consists of five 75-minute sessions each day. In all, 40 children are participating this year, thanks to word-of-mouth and social media outreach, Berry said.

For several years now, Friendship Circle has hosted the bike camp run by iCan Shine, a St. Louis-based organization that provides unique recreational learning opportunities for people with disabilities across the country. The two iCan Shine staffers conducting the West Bloomfield camp – Amanda Bartolotta of Buffalo, N.Y., and Eric Marr of St. Louis – will spend their summer traveling from state to state, teaching scores of children with special needs how to ride a bike. The pair work together – Marr as bike technician and Bartolotta as floor supervisor — to ensure each session runs smoothly.

Tuesday’s camp theme was Tandem Tuesday, Bartolotta explained.

In addition to riding the roller bikes, which have a safety roller instead of a rear tire to simulate the feel of riding on two wheels, campers had a chance to take a spin on a special tandem bike with Marr.

“We use it as a diagnostic tool to see what they need to work on,” he said. “If it’s steering, pedaling, leaning … we can diagnose that from taking them on a ride. It’s helpful in giving them interventions later on throughout the week.”

While campers rode the roller bikes, volunteers, many of whom were local high school students, were at their side, cheering them on. It was hard to tell who was having more fun – the campers or the volunteers.

That was the case for Anika Ghosh, an incoming freshman at West Bloomfield High School and a first-time volunteer at the camp. She relished all the smiles.

“It’s nice to see the campers happy and know that they can achieve their goals,” she said.

Learning to ride a bike can open up a whole new world of opportunities for children with special needs, children like Ryan Irwin of White Lake, for whom this childhood rite of passage seemed out of reach just days before.

His mother, Patty Irwin, said she was moved to tears Monday when she saw her 14-year-old son ride a bike for the first time.

“I cried,” she said, “because he’s been trying to ride since he was 4, and this, to me, is awesome.”

Click HERE to learn more about iCanBike.

Volunteer Recognition Event

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.

A Fond Look Back on Soul Center Mini (Part 3 of a series)

This post is part 3 of a series about Friendship Circle’s efforts to create a new faciltiy to encourage the creativity and enhance the vocational skills. Read:
The History of Farber Soul Center’s Creation and Inspiration
Farber Soul Center Construction Update

As we wrap up our time with Soul Center Mini (the temporary satellite facility used by Friendship Circle to host programs for artists while construction took place on the Farber Soul Center), we’ve been looking back on the success of Soul Center Mini and its programs before getting started with our new facility.

To be clear, Soul Center Mini was not the beginning of the Soul Center mission, it was the pre-beginning to what will become a flagship facility for individuals with special needs to express themselves creatively.

Now that we’ve seen what these artists are capable of when piloting these programs, we can only imagine what continued excitement and success we will see from the enhanced facility and programming that will be offered at the Farber Soul Center.


Because we couldn’t wait for the Farber Soul Center to be completed before getting started with programs, Soul Center Mini is where the art programs were piloted and expanded to meet the needs of the artists and also allowed a tremendous learning experience for what would be offered at the Farber Soul Center and how the studio would function when completed.

An Instructor’s View


Soul Center Art Director Brian Kavanaugh on Soul Center Mini programs:

“What I’m most excited about (coming from a contemporary art point of view) is the experimental and unorthodox ways that art can be displayed works really well for the studio in terms of the flexibility we have for the artists here. This gives us the opportunities to create unique supports and ways for art to be displayed for the artists and create a supportive studio environment for the many tasks involved with running a studio and how all the elements feed into each other in this self-generating environment we have.”

Two Greatest Strengths of Soul Center Mini

  1. Flexibility in terms of being able to acclimate to the wants and needs of any individual as they come in, be it sensory or socially based, challenges with fine motor skills, we have a myriad of ways to understand these challenges and learn how to assess them
  2. Self-generative (not superfluous or offering busy work) it’s important that we function successfully for the artists that like to paint or sculpt (people that can appreciate that abstract way of thinking in front of a blank canvas) as well as people that can appreciate more concrete tasks with expectations at the end so that they can know what success looks like before starting a project.

Tools Artists Can Actually Use

Facilitating artists share their expertise with the many tools used at Soul Center Mini and can communicate with the artists on what they’ve been working on. This allows the instructors to be as sensitive and responsive as possible to the wants and needs of each artist by putting mechanisms in place to help with all the essential elements we try to impart on the artists.

These elements include: accountability for projects, learning to appreciate the value (monetary or spiritually) of their work and positive reinforcement of their creative expression.



There are not enough words to describe the Soul Center Mini volunteers, but a few would be: supportive, skillful and dependable, scaled and enthusiastic.

The volunteers have also been extremely open to Friendship Circle’s way of running the studio and very upfront with their own ideas, creating a fantastic environment that could not exist without them.

Above & Beyond


Lori is a fantastic volunteer and instructor for the laser cutter that is always going above and beyond; she has an extensive history and knowledge about the equipment. From the start, Lori was incredibly generous and enthusiastic and it was clear from the get-go she would be valuable to the organization and has continued to do so in her work with the Soul Center Mini. Each person needs their own personalized introduction to the laser cutter and Lori is able to respond to each inquiry in a quick and adaptive way.

The Laser Cutter

The laser cutter is an industrial piece of equipment that cuts or etches designs onto materials in a physical form and is an impressive piece of equipment that is substantial and can also be intimidating for first-time users. However, it’s a great machine that lots of artists have taken to quite tremendously.

The laser cutter is an extremely versatile piece of equipment that can incorporate art pieces and translate them to other materials in a way that’s extremely exciting for artists and gives them a great sense of pride.

When we branch out into the custom order component of making high-quality, personalized products, it’s extremely commercially viable and takes the outcome of what we do at Soul Center to a whole new level.

Bringing Drawings to Life

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Stephanie likes to create representations of people. We translated some of her line drawings to the laser cutter and other artists cut out the shapes that composed her characters and glued them together to create a three-dimensional personification of her two-dimensional drawings. This gave Stephanie the opportunity to see both the front and rear representations of her drawings and see them more formally by taking someone’s interests and using our tools to turn it into an educational opportunity for Stephanie.

More Than Just a Chessboard

chess pieces

David plays chess himself, and he wanted to make something that he could appreciate and call his own while also creating something he could relate to. He took to this project, with Lori’s enthusiastic help, and not only made the chessboard, but the pieces as well and has continued to make custom-order personalized chess sets. It started as something he wanted to make for his own sake, but now it has become something that relates to other people and David can now have a dialogue with customers by taking orders, discussing the set and desires and collaborates with patrons where larger conversations and relationships can happen.


When an artist is using a loom, they are able to understand that there is an outcome and a goal in mind when starting a project. Because of this understanding, there’s a lot more pride and satisfaction that is achieved through the process.

Loom-related projects are not in the abstract; artists can see the progression right in front of them and understand it as a tangible item while appreciating that it has a potentially direct relationship with someone in the outside community.

Soul Center Mini has looms of varying sizes; from tabletop to rug looms situated on the floor (up to 50” wide) which have been great for a lot of people learning to make scarves, pillows and rugs.

Untapped Resources

loom 1

Akiva wasn’t too sure when he first came to Soul Center Mini about how to integrate himself into the studio, but he has interests in mind for things that he is a personal fan of. He may not have had the idea beforehand of what he would create, but once the tools were in his hands and he was in a space to mold his interests, his first production was a 13-foot scarf in the style of a Dr. Who-tardis, which incorporated his personal passions with his creative expression. When Akiva finished the scarf and pulled it off the loom, he beamed with pride and was so excited to not only create his first product, but also to learn a new skill by using the loom.

Products Available at Soul Center Mini

Soul Center Mini products

  1. Chess boards – Can be ordered and customized/personalized with themes and interact with artists
  2. Mezuzahs – Customizable with colors, lots of artists make mezuzahs because of their personal interests in making the item
  3. Scarves – Customizable, much more appreciated when a customer wants a scarf and collaborates directly with the artist in a social way or can purchase from the artist’s stock and can include buttons or other embellishments
  4. Pillows – frontal square designs of pillows can be customized with colors or chosen from the artist’s backlog.
  5. Silkscreen orders – Shirts, sweatpants, any sort of garment that you can put an image onto
  6. Unique materials – Keepsakes, centerpieces, trinkets, pictures printed onto items such as necklaces, keychains, etched mirrors, glass items, tabletop items
  7. Paintings and drawings done by artists
Shine Bright

Shine Bright: A Beautiful Night Celebrating Our Volunteers

In 1994 Friendship Circle started with 8 volunteers and 4 families. Now, 20 years later, Friendship Circle helps over 300 families supported by over 800 volunteers of the Morrie and Sybil Fenkell Volunteer Club On May 13th Friendship Circle held it’s annual volunteer recognition entitled Shine Bright. Families, Supporters, Friendship Circle staff and parents of volunteers came together to express our sincerest thanks to the amazing volunteers who have put so much effort into creating special friendships with their buddies.

The Event

The event opened with with an original performance by Friendship Circle’s Music and Drama program entitled “G-d is Everywhere.”

Bassie Shemtov, Director of Friendship Circle, thanked each and every volunteer in the audience for being the strength for the children of Friendship Circle and showing them unconditional love.

Alumna volunteer, Jordan Shiffman, and her first Friendship Circle buddy Stephanie Harris shared their story of friendship that has been going strong for the last 13 years. It survived her cross country move and back. They are the epitome of the love shared at Friendship Circle.


The night ended with an inspirational and unforgettable performance by Christopher Duffley, a 12-year old singer from New Hampshire. He was born blind and Autistic, but that has not slowed him down one bit. Christopher brought the house to tears with his acapella rendition of “Lean on Me.” Christopher embodies everything that Friendship Circle stands for: inclusion, strength, and love.


Christopher Duffley’s Performance

Pictures from Shine Bright

Christopher Duffley’s Performance on Channel 4

Meet My Friends Event Brings Mothers and Daughters Together

This past Monday, Friendship Circle hosted Meet my Friends, a special evening for mothers and daughters. Dozens of mothers and daughters gathered in the Friendship Circle multi-purpose room for a night of jewelry making, inspirational speeches from volunteers and family members, and fun!

Meet My Friends was an evening of motivation, creativity and fun for mothers and daughters over age 12. This event provided the opportunity for mothers to join us at Friendship Circle and get a glimpse of the friendships their daughters build within our programs. It was an eye-opening experience for all!

Check out the event in pictures here!


An Evening Of Recognition: Honoring our Volunteers.

Honoring our Volunteers

Nothing makes children feel better about themselves than spending time with friends that truly care about them.

Through the Morrie and Sybil Fenkell Volunteer Club, remarkable bonds are forged between the children with special needs and their new friends.

Please join us in recognizing the dedication and hard work of our teen and adult volunteers. This annual event is Friendship Circle’s opportunity to pay tribute to our 900+ volunteers that
have dedicated their time and love to our children with special needs over the past year.

The Details:

Date: Tuesday, May 8th
Time: 7:00pm-9:00pm
Location:  Berman Center for Performing Arts at the Jewish Community Center. 6600 West Maple Road, West Bloomfield Michigan, 48322
R.S.V.P:  Reserve using the registration form below.


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