The gift of presence was celebrated at the Friendship Circle’s so-called bar mitzvah year annual awards reception.
The 13th annual event, called Heart & Soul, sold out the 600- seat-house at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Humanities Center in Highland Hills with teenagers, adults and families.
The work of three couples and 259 teen volunteers was highlighted, along with the progress of children facing a multitude of potentially isolating challenges.
The Friendship Circle of Cleveland, an affiliate of Chabad, pairs Jewish teens with children and teens of all faiths and backgrounds who are facing physical, emotional, and developmental challenges, as a way to help both groups develop. It offers after-school and camp programming, respite and support to families. To its teen volunteers, it offers educational programming as well, including opportunities to learn American Sign Language.
Honored were Jill and Brad Helfman of Solon, members of Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights and Pepper Pike; Shoshana and Abe Socher of Beachwood, members of Green Road Synagogue in Beachwood; and Penni and Steve Weinberg of Moreland Hills, members of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood and Solon Chabad in Solon.
Each of the 259 teens who volunteered was called to the stage to receive awards recognizing their time and service as well. Teens who volunteered more than 45 hours of service were given The Weinberg Volunteer Award.
Founded by Rabbi Yossi and Estie Marozov, who are co-directors of Friendship Circle, the program serves 250 families through the work of its 14 staff members and 280 volunteers.
Felicia Bowers received a standing ovation when she rolled onto the stage. Born with cerebral palsy, Bowers is unable to express herself verbally and has always had an affinity for art. With assistive technology, she now can express herself with drawings that are made tracking her eye movements. Brian Kavanaugh, senior facilitating artist for Friendship Circle in Michigan, introduced Bowers.
The program opened with the recitation of the Sh’ma by MatanEl and ShirEl Maayan, ages 6 and 10, respectively, participants of the Friendship Circle’s Kulanu inclusion Hebrew School.
“When we show love to G-d’s precious children, essentially, we’re expressing our love to G-d as well,” said Yossi Marozov, in his opening remarks. “Our teens understand what it means to a child with special needs to have a friendship with someone just a few years older – almost a peer – someone who is cool and kind, who is patient, who is fun, who shows up every week, and who is fully present.
“Imagine what that gift means to a child who may be several steps behind,” he continued. “Imagine what that validation means to the parents of that child.”
Tyler Goetz, 16, of Beachwood, who attends Lawrence School in Sagamore Hills, spoke about his experience volunteering at Friendship Circle.
“When I am there, it doesn’t ever feel like volunteering or a commitment,” he said. “It just seems like hanging out with friends.”
The Helfmans spoke of two of their children’s commitment to Friendship Circle – and what volunteering meant to them.
Prior to beginning volunteering, Lindsey had developed a close connection with a boy in her elementary school.
“We watched with interest as Lindsey spent time on Sundays making ‘friends’ with children who were not in her regular circle of high school friends,” Brad Helfman said. “Lindsey told us that her new friends at Friendship Circle further expanded her appreciation for these very special children.”
Their younger child, Justin, also volunteered.
“He learned that not all friendships are as simple or as easy to make, but that once these friendships occur, the bond is cemented for life,” Jill Helfman said. “We’ve observed that when Justin sees a person with a disability, he is able to look past the disability and connect to the whole person.”
Steve Weinberg, who was leaving his post as board chair after five years, said he has seen the impact Friendship Circle has had on his grandchildren who are volunteers, but also on families in greater Cleveland.
“When I realize that Friendship Circle is a breeding ground for future community leaders – and that I’m watching these teens gaining confidence and empathy and altruistic values – I feel optimistic about our future.” Weinberg said.
Shoshana and Abe Socher spoke of gratitude for the work Friendship Circle has done to support their family. Their daughter Bayla, 11, was born with Down syndrome and also needed heart surgery as an infant.
“Every time I dreamed something up that I wanted for Bayla at Friendship Circle, I mentioned it to Rabbi Yossi and Estie, and they made it a reality,” Shoshana Socher said. “They never said it couldn’t be done, they never laughed, and they never doubted.”