At the Walk4Friendship, where 1,300 participants walked, wheeled, rolled and strolled to raise close to $200,000 for the Friendship Circle of West Bloomfield, MI, there were two finish lines.
One was 5 kilometers from the starting line and ended at the Ferber Kaufman LifeTown building, the Friendship Circle’s 23,000 square foot headquarters where life skills and activities serve 980 children with a panorama of special needs and thousands more who visit the school throughout the year. The other was only a mile from the starting point, so children of all abilities and their panting parents and friends could savor the thrill of victory known only to those who’ve crossed finish lines. The two finish lines were just another example, said walk participants, that Chabad representatives Rabbi Levi and Bassie Shemtov get it: Children with special needs are kids, with kid’s needs to bounce, to enjoy music, explore and make friends.
“It is really overwhelming to see how amazing the response of the community was,” said Bassie Shemtov. Every one of the 1,898 individual donors got to know more about the Friendship Circle through the walk. “Knowledge of the Friendship Circle’s work in the community is all over the place. It’s extremely exciting.”
Funds raised by the walk are helping Friendship Circle expand programming at the Meer Family Friendship Center and LifeTown. LifeTown is a mini-metropolis with a bank, grocery, hair salon and pet store where learning basic life skills, like crossing the street, buying ice cream, and handling pets can be explored in a safe and therapeutically correct setting. A gym for basketball games and scooter races, a water room with simulated rain and thunder sounds, a dance and music room and more make the center a place that other communities use as a benchmark for their own dreams of serving children with disabilities.
Debbie Pearlman, a Walk4Friendship committee member, convinced 83 people to join her family on the walk and pulled together the largest walking team. “All the people at the Friendship Circle and the Shemtovs’ passion for the program is so infectious, I just think it pours out into the community. People feel it and want to give back,” said Pearlman. Her daughter Dani started off with Friendship Circle’s Friends at Home program and bonded with a volunteer friend during weekly visits. Now that LifeTown is open, Dani delights in the bubbles and fiber optic lights that surround her in the Snoezelen room, a multi-sensory environment, and bounces on the trampoline. While Dani enjoys Sunday Circle activities, Pearlman has a chance to run all the errands that cannot be done when Dani is around. Dani’s younger sister, Alexandra, 3, is already looking forward to expanded programming for siblings without disabilities.
Pearlman’s husband Joel Pearlman signed on his corporation, Image-One, as one of the event’s 19 corporate sponsors. Homedics, North American Bancard, National City supported the walk. Other corporate sponsors threw in freebies. Absopure supplied water bottles, and Michigan Chiropractic Center soothed aching backs after the finish line.
Support poured in from near and far, very far. Miriam Defilipp, a sophomore in high school from Charlotte, NC, flew in with her mom for the walk and caught a plane home the same day. As a counselor in the Friendship Circle’s first ever day camp this summer, Defilipp discovered her camper “had feelings and understood things, even though she did not look like she did.” Defilipp raised $1,358 from neighbors in friends her state, and teamed up with Chaya Weiss and Devorah Groner of Detroit for the walk.
Initially, Milane Grossbard pledged to sign up 5 people to her team. She more than tripled her target, and walked with a group of 17. “People were thrilled to give to the Friendship Circle,” said Grossbard, uplifted by the emotional boost their enthusiasm provided. LifeTown is a lifeline for two of her four children. Chloe, 7, who has cerebral palsy, covered the miles in her wheelchair, and Sabian, 3, who is autistic, are paired with volunteers every Sunday. “My children will not learn the skills they need naturally,” said Grossbard. “They need that building.”
The fun didn’t end with the walk, said organizer Rivkie Hadar. Five inflatable rides – for kids and adults, a marketplace, and a DJ entertained the somewhat peaky walkers. A tefillin booth manned by Chabad yeshiva students was visited by 200 men. Long after most had regained their breath, and nibbled on their bags of snow peas, carrots and fruit, and enjoyed the magic show and balloon artists, a cheer erupted. The very last walker, a19-year-old with Down syndrome, with the help of two volunteers, crossed the 5 K finish line.