At age 22, Bassie Shemtov founded the Friendship Circle, a humanitarian program that tapped into a vital community resource—young teenagers—to volunteer their time for local children with special needs.
Today, 14 years later, the Friendship Circle model has been adopted in 74 locations worldwide. 11,000 teenagers from the U.S. to Australia dedicate time every week to help 4500 special needs children and their families live richer lives.
Representatives interested in developing their own Friendship Circle visit the headquarters in Michigan for hands-on training, participate in twice-yealy conferences, and discuss issues with other branches through an online exchange.
Their teen volunteers proudly sport Friendship Circle gear, Facebook with fellow volunteers around the world, and participate in YouTue contests, closing a circle of love for the children, their families and the volunteers.
To date, the Friendship Circle ahs received numerous awards, including: The Social Entrepreneurship Award from the Manhattan Institute; the Dove Award from Arc of Oakland County; Gretchki Award from the West Bloomfield Chamber, and the Diversity Award from Corp! Magazine in Detroit.
Questions for Bassie Shemtov, Founder, Friendship Circle
What did you envision when you started the organization 14 years ago?
Soon after my husband, Levi, and I were married in 1994, we set on a mission to provide friendship to those who really needed it. Together with the Sobel family, my husband founded the Daniel B. Sobel Friendship House which provides unconditional friendship for people struggling with addictions and substance abuse. At the time, I tried to think of others who needed friendship as well—and I hit on the idea to provide special needs children with companions. I enjoy working with teens so I devised ways to motivate them to donate their time to these children.
Did you expect the Friendship Circle to become the mammoth international organization it is today?
Hardly. Initially we started as a visitation program to provide friendship for these children who are often isolated and lonely. At the same time, of course, we gave a few hours of respite to their parents and families. When we saw how popular the visitation program was, we began hosting different social and holiday events for the kids. In 2004, we opened the Meer Family Friendship Circle Campus
Only 10 years later, you opened the Meer Family Friendship and the Ferber Kaufman Life Town, a 22,000 square foot complex. What happens there?
Life Town, a unique village where we teach kids practical, real life skills. The children practice these skills through visits to realistic stores including a salon, bank, doctor, dentist, and movie theater. They schedule appointments, learn how to interact and behave in public, and prepare to enter the real world.
The complex also contains 12 therapy rooms where special needs children and adults with disabilities work with their therapists. We also have six therapy rooms, including music, tactile, water, dance, and art rooms, where the latest therapeutic techniques are implemented.
You were raised as the daughter of Chabad Shluchim. How did that figure in your founding of the Friendship Circle?
From an early age my parents, who were sent by the Rebbe as his representatives to Michigan, raised my siblings and me to be givers.
Were there any strong women role models in your life?
My mother, Batsheva Shemtov, remains to this day my greatest role model. She is an amazing, selfless woman.
Do you think The Friendship Circle has helped lessen the stigma that is attached to people with disabilities?
Through volunteering, I have seen hundreds of people become more accepting and develop a special love and passion for these children. Even people who are not involved with Friendship Circle, but who have heard about us, are more open-minded and aware.
Your own children are also Friendship Circle volunteers?
Yes, all five of my children have been volunteering from a young age and have special-needs kids over to our house. I believe that every young child should interact with special-needs people. They will quickly learn that they are not intimidating or scary. My children, and others who are involved with the disabled, display an extra sensitivity to people and have learned not to judge others.
Your small family visitations have morphed into a project that clearly involves a lot of funds. Who supports your work?
Our first big supporters were four Jewish businessmen. When Levi went to that first meeting, they had no reason to believe in us. But they gave us $1,500 which was a huge donation for us at the time. To this day, they remain close friends and strong supporters of our work. We are also indebted to friends from across the Michigan community who support different aspects of the Friendship Circle’s programming and infrastructure.
How does the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s message inspire your work?
The Rebbe gave us an amazing gift when he taught us to look at each Jew as our equal. He often stressed that we cannot know who a person really is and we certainly cannot judge them. We are here to bring out the special beauty within each child and support them and their families.
Every Chabad representative who developed a Friendship Circle in their community says it’s the most popular of all their outreach programs. Today there are Friendship Circles all across the U.S. Canada, South Africa, England, France, Israel, Hong Kong, and Australia, modeled after your prototype. How does this accomplishment make you feel?
I am very excited to see how much it has grown, thank G-d, and I just hope that we are doing everything in the right way. But it is really the Rebbe’s project and I can’t, and don’t want to, take credit for its success. It is only because of the strength and guidance we take from him that we are able to achieve what we have.