Navigating Life as we Know It

7. The Friendship Circle - Seeking the "Secret" to an Inclusive Community

October 07, 2020 Envision Media Group Season 1 Episode 7
Navigating Life as we Know It
7. The Friendship Circle - Seeking the "Secret" to an Inclusive Community
Chapters
Navigating Life as we Know It
7. The Friendship Circle - Seeking the "Secret" to an Inclusive Community
Oct 07, 2020 Season 1 Episode 7
Envision Media Group

Early in our Podcast journey we had the pleasure of touring the Friendship Circle location in West Bloomfield Michigan, seeing the work done at the Soul Studio, and enjoying a nice lunch at the Soul Cafe, and as we left we decided to ask for a chance to meet with the Executive Director of the program - Rabbi Levi Shemtov. 

For more information about the Friendship Circle - https://www.friendshipcircle.org/

Show Notes Transcript

Early in our Podcast journey we had the pleasure of touring the Friendship Circle location in West Bloomfield Michigan, seeing the work done at the Soul Studio, and enjoying a nice lunch at the Soul Cafe, and as we left we decided to ask for a chance to meet with the Executive Director of the program - Rabbi Levi Shemtov. 

For more information about the Friendship Circle - https://www.friendshipcircle.org/

Steve:

Hi, Steve here, the longer you have been in the special needs parenting business, the more familiar you become with the battles we fight while seeking a better life for our children living with disability. We spend precious time and energy combating opposing forces aligning with Disability Advocates fighting the system and learning to negotiate with insurance companies, Medicaid services, social security and the educational establishment. But once in a while you find a community of people who get it right, those who understand the spiritually intrinsic value of human life, how each person regardless of their place on some contrived spectrum, contributes to the whole of who we are as human beings, and that none of us is complete unless all of us are included. I found such a community when we visited with Rabbi Levi shemtov at the Friendship Circle in West Bloomfield, Michigan, in November of 2019. This was one of our first recorded episodes of navigating life as we know it, it was in the pre Covidien era of 2019, and we recorded it on site. Because we didn't have the controlled environment of the recording studio, you'll hear some unintended environmental sound effects. But I hope the content of our categorization with Rabbi shemtov will overshadow the background noise. We have recorded 28 episodes since this one from Portland, Oregon, in San Francisco to Chicago, in Towson, Maryland, with many more on the drawing board. And I have found all of them to be fascinating. But this one interview with Rabbi shemtov stands out from the rest is not so much about what they do, or how they do it. It's about the why. The recognition that every human being is a vital piece of a picture puzzle, a soul that is equal and worthy of boundless love. I hope you'll enjoy listening to this episode as much as I did recording. Today, our guest is Rabbi Levi shemtov, one of the founders of Friendship Circle in West Bloomfield Township, Michigan. For those of you who are not familiar with Michigan geography, West Bloomfield township is north west of Detroit. Rabbi Shem Tov is also the president and CEO of Friendship Circle. So Rabbi Shem Tov Welcome to navigating life as we know it.

Rabbi Shemtov:

Thank you for coming out here and giving us a chance to have a conversation?

Steve:

Well, I'm honored. First question. And this is an elevator speech to people would give about the organization and the building can be as tall as you want it to be. And the elevator can be as slow as you want it to be, or needed to be. But how would you describe Friendship Circle to someone who has no knowledge about it and what you do.

Unknown:

So Friendship Circle was founded on the idea that within each person, there's a soul, and that soul is a part of God and is as beautiful as any human being. And that anything that divides us and anything that we consider a challenge or a disability is on the outer shell of the person and not on the inside. And our idea is to allow people to shine and to allow people to shine by appreciating their inner soul. So we started actually our organization started by doing by, by appreciating people who suffer from addiction and mental illness and tell them you are not met, you are not mental illness, you are not addiction, you are a beautiful soul who is covered by the challenge, then we found that people with special needs can benefit from people appreciating them, not for their challenges, but for their soul inside. And then we found that there's another kind of person that appreciates when people see them for their soul, and not for their outside shell. And that other kind of person is everybody else. So we bring together we bring people from isolation into inclusion. But by including people with special needs in the community, we are not only enriching the lives of the individuals with special needs, but enriching the lives and maybe even more so of the volunteers and the community that embrace them. It's a pretty high elevator, but

Steve:

it covers a lot. Yes. I was out here in November and took a tour of your facilities with Aaron Berry. And I came here actually because a lot of people that I know of on the east side or west side of the state, I would like to have something similar to this and I thought I'd come here and get the formula for the special sauce so I can go back and and we could do it and I find out an hour from looking at your website and investigating it that what you have done here is more than just a special sauce that that creates a special recipe. you've developed something that's very, very unique and very, very needed in the world today. And I look into your mission and your value statement, I realize what you just said. And your value statement is probably the special ingredient that within each person is a soul and that soul is equal and worthy of boundless love. With this inspiration, the lives of the families we serve are enhanced well with the volunteers reap the rewards of selfless giving,

Unknown:

I couldn't say it better myself. You probably wrote down right?

Steve:

Sometimes words, prose approaches poetry. And I think that that is one of those times. And then a couple quotes, I got off your website too, because I was an English major, and I love poetry. And I love the power of the least amount of words saying a great deal. And one of them was whenever a soul travels in this world, it has led there to find sparks that had been waiting since the time of creation for this soul to arrive. Which is beautiful.

Unknown:

That's not that's from that's a Hasidic. That that's from our specific Jewish tradition. Without within Judaism, the Hasidic tradition, what's one of our remedies,

Steve:

beautiful, it is beautiful. And then another one, our souls are not broken, that they should need repair and nor deficient that they should need anything added, our souls need only to be uncovered and allowed to shine,

Unknown:

though, that's from our rebbi, Rabbi Menachem schneerson, of blessed memory, who guided us and starting this inspiration led us to start this organization. And that is this, that is the secret sauce. And that's, you know, we are a, you know, we are a faith driven organization that, you know, serves every one of all faiths, because that's part of our faith. Drive is not so and it's not our, you know, the vast majority of our programs are not faith infused, but it's faith motivated in our mission. And so that is our, that's our secret sauce, you know, and this is something that, that adds, you know, my wife and I founded the organization. And because this is a religious and sacred mission from us, we made a lifetime commitment to that, when we were 24, and 22. So that's, that certainly helps attract good support from the community, when the people that were turning to support from the community, recognize that we're not here, as you know, where we're, you know, one day, we're saying that one thing is the most important thing in the year later, we're saying that there's another cause that's most important. I mean, we adopted this course, this course and this cause as our child and as part of our family, and in people respond to that. So we were lucky enough that the community appreciated that and gave us the support that we needed, because without that, you, you can't, you can't get anything done. You could you could write nice poetry, but you can't build an organization with, with poetry, you need people to give you and share with you, you know, money that is that they spent a lot of time and energy, you know, to, to, to, to create for themselves, and you're asking them to share it with the community.

Steve:

There's that power of belief in people though, that if you are believe very strongly in a cause, and like you said, you're willing to commit your life to it, that attracts other individuals that can volunteer, go see the worthiness of the cause. And obviously, it is yielded some pretty remarkable results so far, and I know you're not done yet. I've listened to a lot of the videos on your website, and they are wonderful, they're compelling. They tell you stories about individuals, especially at the the fiber Center, where the artists have done amazing things that some of the people working in the in the kitchen at Seoul cafe, extremely inspirational in at the end of our podcast will reference people to a website where they can take a look at those and find out what's going on here. It's amazing. The last quote I put down here also is from the rabais None of us is complete and less all of us are included in to me being the father of a special needs child Those are very powerful words, because we want our sons and daughters to be part of the world and to be recognized for the gifts they bring to it, not the things they take from it or, or not the responsibility that we have to provide for them, but they it's a two way street. It's

Unknown:

very much, it's a, it's a very important and driving force I, you know, in trying to develop and teach that one line from from the rebbi, I developed my own metaphor for it, okay, and the metaphor is of a puzzle. And one of the, you know, I think in, you know, because we have mental health and special needs, you know, we work in both both spaces, and with volunteers, and with donors, and everything, I think one of the most difficult positions a person can feel in a prison could feel, is the feeling that I don't fit in anywhere. And that that's a feeling that could happen to some of those very successful and just don't find their place in the world, or someone that has challenges or, or it's a it's a feeling that doesn't discriminate against people's based on ability, or wealth or, or anything else that society considers desirable or undesirable. It's a feeling of not fitting in, where do I fit in? The spiritual message, and only the spiritual message can answer them. Because if you wake up, imagine everything is a shape, you know, and everyone's some people are squares, and some people are triangle, some people are circles. So you if you're wake up your square, your triangle, your circle, you figure you'll fit you'll, you'll see all the shapes everywhere, you'll fit somewhere. What if you're a zigzag, you know, some type of asymmetrical shape. You wake up in the morning, you say, maybe I don't fit in any way. You tell me? Maybe I don't fit in anywhere? How do I how can I reassure you and tell you? Yes, you do. I don't know that you do. I don't know that you do. But if I have a spiritual message, then I say you, you do. Because if you didn't fit anywhere, not only that, then God wouldn't create you and bring you to where you are right now. And that's why you are not as you are not a symmetrical random shape. You are a puzzle piece. And my me telling you that you're a puzzle piece, I'm telling you two things. One, I'm telling you, you fit in somewhere. The other thing I'm telling you, and maybe just as important is there's a picture that's not complete. without you.

Steve:

I think the rugby would be very proud of that. It really does give you the vision of the picture is not complete without you right and you will fit in and you will fit in.

Unknown:

And when you if you give someone a puzzle to create, you throw 100 pieces down, I don't know how challenging of puzzles either or 1000 pieces. Man, I throw 1000 pieces. And I tell you by the way, this may not be a puzzle, this may just be random pieces, you'll never be able to complete it. The first thing you need to know, when you want to start on a project of a puzzle, you want to make sure all the pieces are here, and there are no extra. If you know those two things, those are the two most important things you need to know before you start putting out puzzle. If I tell you, there may be extra pieces, maybe pieces missing, you'll never be able to complete the puzzle. But if I tell you there isn't an extra piece, and there's nothing missing. That's what we can say to every single person, you're not extra. And there's nothing missing. Everything that's needed to complete this puzzle is air. And you're one of those pieces.

Steve:

It reminds me a bit of a bumper sticker I remember seeing, oh, probably 2030 or 40 years ago about a little boy, looking soulfully and it said I know I'm someone because God don't make no junk. And that's really the bottom line is that we're here for a purpose. And that's why I love the statement about everyone's a soul, or the one that follows up by saying that our souls need only to be uncovered and allowed to shine.

Unknown:

And just this morning, I was in a meeting with someone and I was sharing one of these concepts. And he told me I didn't look it up because it sounds very interesting. He said that. That I think it was Rockefeller had Standard Oil and they were you know they were drawing oil, but just some of the oil was able to be useful and the rest they were throwing they had to just discard because there was nothing they could do with it. And then Rockefeller said, God wouldn't create that much waste. Let's figure out what to do with it. And that's plastic and so many other things came from someone believing that God wouldn't create that much waste.

Steve:

Now, of course, we created too much plastic. That was our doing. Exactly. So I also wanted to say that when I first walked in the building, and I hadn't gone to the tour yet, for some reason, I felt very welcome. I don't come from a Jewish background. I don't know the traditions. But I felt it's a very welcoming place and your staff are very welcoming in, in quite often other faith based organizations, I don't always feel that I feel like there is an expectation that set out in this one only had expectations of letting that light shine from that person, that soul. And I just wanted to know that that's a palpable feeling when you walk through these doors, at least it was for me,

Unknown:

thank you. That's all we work on. That's most that's the our most important value. That's that's our most important value in this organization is that,

Steve:

don't assume that's probably the same for Friendship Circle International, yes. Because good, then it's spreading around, you need more of that in this world today. Historically, historical overview, it says, 1994, I got this off your website, Friendship Circle is founded with eight volunteers, meeting for families in their homes every week. What happened before 1984? What brought you to the four families.

Unknown:

So my, my wife and I are members of this, you know, you quoted the rebbi. Before, we're followers of the rebbi. And that's one of the things that he he asked of his followers is to dedicate our lives to spreading this message. So most of the people who understand this message that people are not their labels, they are their soul inside. So the the most widely used application of that thought is within the Jewish community, is a Jewish outreach movement within the Jewish community. reaching out to people who say, I'm a Jew, that practices I'm a Jew that doesn't practice and people putting a secular Jew. And so therefore, I don't have to do any of the traditions of Judaism, because I accepted upon myself a label that I'm a secular Jew. So the rabbies message was you're not, we don't care about your label. So you know, as far as you're concerned, you know, me as a Hasidic, you know, fully practicing Jew or just as Jewish as, as, as you are. And therefore, you should practice, do one thing do when you do something that God wants a Jewish person to do. God appreciates it as much as he wants it from me. So it's removing that label. But the label also had this idea of understanding the person inside and in not looking at the outside has a universal message as well. So we decided to dedicate our lives to that universal message, you know, beyond you know, not in Jewish practice and not necessarily within the Jewish community. What happened was, there was a we were matched together with this idea because there was a, there's a, it was a, it was a young man, by the name of Danny Sobel. I don't know if you saw this story online. If you don't remember the name of Danny Savile. He was a young man, very bright, funny, handsome, friendly, but he had some mental illness. And he had some addiction, a little bit of addiction, but mostly mental illness. And he struggled. He struggled for many years. And his family set him up with relationships with therapists with psychiatrists with rehabs. But his most meaningful relationship he had was with someone that was very different than him and it was a orthodox rabbi. This kid was considered himself a secular kid, and he was an orthodox rabbi. It was twice his age, born in a different country, and they had this incredible bond. Unfortunately, Danny died at a very young age in his 20s and his family said, his family took, you know, the most of a very important lesson but a very difficult lesson. No one can be judged for not doing that. But it is beautiful when someone does it and took their tragedy and wanted to turn it into, you know, to be able to at least salvage something from the tragedy and give a blessing to other people. They said we want to we want to we want our the labovick movement to hire a rabbi. Who would be the friend to the future Danny's that this Rabbi was to our Danny? So I looked at that, and my wife and I looked at that proposal and we said, you know, what? What, what's the relationship between this Rabbi and Danny? Was there nothing in common? It was just it was a soul to a soul. Danny saw someone who seeing him for a soul, in the rabbi saw someone who saw and they bonded that way, which is what they had in common, which is what they encountered. So who else we would take this idea and say, who else needs that relationship? So we started, we had a two year grant from the Sobel family through labovick to start this organization. And it was just a two year salary and, and find who else needs friends. So we went around and we saw, okay, children, people told us, children with special needs can use this. So then we found teenagers in the community, and we found a few homes with children with special needs, through sending out mailings. And we started bringing, we would pick up the teenagers at their homes and bring them to the kids with special needs, and wait outside as they had a playdate and then pick them up and brought them back. That's how it started in 94. And eventually, more and more teenagers started finding out about it and wanting to join, until we had to fight we had to find more kids. Because we had too many teenagers wanting to come in. And that's when we realized, eventually we realized that these teens were coming because they were being needed this morning, the kids that it's so different are typical teenagers are typical teenagers. So normal, typical teenager, his whole life is being judged by people who are looking at their labels. how, you know, superficially as you know, their looks, you know, or what they're wearing, you know, it's a cool age, their grades, know what teams they're on what college they got into everything. Dare I say that even their parents, even their parents? Look at their child, they love their child unconditionally. But they think they when they see their child, they see their labels? Are you going to be the one that's going to get into school, you're going to be the one that's going to accomplish the things that are going to make me proud Are you going to be this you're going to be that I used to? Did you gain weight? Did you lose weight? Did you do this? Did you do that? It's it's the end, they come and they meet a child with special needs. doesn't see anything doesn't notice how they look, doesn't notice what they're wearing, doesn't know what their grades are? doesn't care. And even if they know they don't care, you know, I'm saying a lot of them are. A lot of these kids are intelligent enough to know the difference between a good gate and a battery, but they don't care. care where you're going to college. I don't care what kind of car you drive. I'm conditional, unconditional. It's not only unconditional means I see all your flaws. And I love you anyway. That's I don't see the flaws. I don't see the flaws, right. So a parent sees the flaws, and they love you anyway. Yeah, you know, but you can you have an opportunity to have a relationship with someone who doesn't see your flaws, because they're there. Because your flaws really shouldn't be seen because they're superficial to who you really are. That's it, we focus so much of our time, and energy and thought on something that is such a small percentage of what we are and who we are. And in this environment, that's not there.

Steve:

Well, you've already there answered one of my future questions is how you get your volunteers and I see that it's a mutual gift to each other. There's a mutual need there. Yeah, some of the videos you have on you matters may echo exactly what you're saying about the pressure is that young people feel that when we get old, weak, think back and yeah, that was that way when I was a teenager too, but we have a tendency to discount that. Now, as a matter of fact, as you said, As parents, we harbor some of those even though we don't want to admit it, we do. Right. And so it's a great team to match up childhood special needs, who is going to be very, very accepting, right and non judgmental with A teenager who sees that all of a sudden they're being viewed for who they are and what they have to offer. So great, great. Match. Thank you. So. So from 1994, you've grown in 1996, that says you were using various facilities throughout the community before you actually had a building. Right? And a place is an important thing, but it doesn't happen right away. Right. But how many friendship circles are there now as trying to count down the map that you have? And it's kind of hard to keep moving the map around? I say, 60

Unknown:

or something? It's about ad in the ad sales? Yeah, you know, there's some, you know, there's always new ones opening and some, you know, once in a while they're a well, meaning chapter opens up and it doesn't, doesn't take off as easily, you know, maybe because they don't have the strong conviction of it.

Steve:

So, but that demonstrates, is a profound need. Yes. When you and your wife discovered that and dedicated your life to it, you found something that, unfortunately, there's a huge market for, right. And it's it's being it's resonating. So and how many people do you serve today? More than eight, right? And more than four?

Unknown:

Yes. So we have about 300 families that we serve on a regular basis, you know, that means they, they get our mailings, and they either sign up or don't sign up for one of our programs, afternoon programs camps. Then we serve about 2000 students a year through our lessons for Life program. But those are kids, those are our students who come in here through their schools. So we don't serve them directly. We serve their schools in the schools bring the kids in, so we don't have their, you know, that we don't access these families directly at and those you familiar with, should explain what that is that village or

Steve:

I saw the village when I was here. Yeah. And I understand there's also lessons for life 2.0, which is being more involved in their IEP S Yes. And helping along, which is great, because my son of being 31, he is five years out of the school system. And I still have nightmares of IEP s and I realized what they do and do not do. But the Weinberg village is a great place to be able to help with some of the practical applications in an IEP. Right. So and is that? Is that operational now? No, so no.

Unknown:

So what we have is, you referenced the Weinberg village, it's a village that we have in our building that has in a bank, pet shop, working street lights and ice cream cart, a small little drugstore slash convenience shop, a cafe here and nail salon, movie theater, medical, dental office and library. And I don't know if I mentioned working streetlights. And yeah, so I did mention that, okay, so. So we have a curriculum that we share with schools and schools bring their students, mostly students who have special needs, and they use a curriculum, and they could come four to seven times a year. And they would pick, they would pick a progression of, of lessons, to have their students in their school, learn life and community skills within our village. And every every lesson has either a money management, lesson time management, safety, and it's all it's all in there. Most lessons start with going to the bank with a withdrawal slip and taking out $12. And most of them you would get it they try to take you through the village. And you would get, you know, some discretionary money with some money that you would have to spend to fulfill the curriculum. And we teach life skills. So the 2.0 lessons is more we piloted it and it worked, and I was still trying it a little bit. But it's it's more teaching, like you said, towards the IEP for each individual student and following each individual student. So right now we still we still the students still gain anecdotal. You know, we get the anecdotal evidence of them gaining but we're not tracking each individual student. You know, what they did? You know, when they came the first time in the year, and there was a sign that says, Ask us and the teacher told them by the way, when you see a sign that says ask us about our sale, you should ask about the sale and the first time they came, they didn't Ask. And then the fourth time they came, they did ask. So that would be progress. So we're not tracking that right now. That's, that's our next lesson. It's all developed and ready to go. It's a much more expensive program to implement. And we were looking for funding sources to be able to do that.

Steve:

I would imagine the schools would welcome that it sounds like it really helps them a great deal.

Unknown:

It does. And when we piloted the program to schools were all very happy to be part of the pilot, but it's the schools unfortunately, don't have the budget to pay for what it costs. So the extra money is in First of all, you know, making the charts and and our education staff learning the IPS and, and tailoring a lesson to each individual student. But also in the village right now, the only thing we have is volunteers, whom act as storekeepers in the stores. And as you know, Street, no people walking the streets, but net, then we would have to add a whole other layer of staff just to monitor and just to report on each student on how they're doing in there. So one of the things we did do now is this year, we, we implemented a new program called we put in a new program pathways, I was thinking, Okay, now we have another program called Pathfinder. So as I was going to give us pathways, which is a program where we invite students, we invite schools to bring more of an inclusive group. So bring, you know, sixth graders, you know, not necessarily kids with special needs. And we make a and we provide a curriculum that's universally appropriate to kids with special needs. And in typical kids.

Steve:

So 2.0 is still a work in progress. still a work in progress, but that's how you perfect it. Right.

Unknown:

Right. Exactly.

Steve:

Then it says in 2005 Friendship Circle gets its home with the Ferber for Kaufmann lifetime. Was that the lifetime concept, part of your original thinking or the some of these things come along? as you're developing and say, gee, that would be great to incorporate

Unknown:

the religion, right? So we we Yes, so we started talking about a building and in 99, is when we started talking about a building. And it took us to like 2003, to figure out what we were going to do. And yes, that was, you know, we brought together therapists and families or children with special needs and educators when we said, you know, what would you want in a building? At that point, actually, we thought we could only afford to build a 5000 square foot building, and then they have one set to loading us up with what would they want in the building. And then it's, we have a board member who said that his n, hired an architect and said, I would like you to build for me, I'd like you to design for me a small house, but with lots of big rooms. You know, no one says all these big houses that you see, you know, I don't think anyone ever tells you, or very few people tell an architect, you know, Bill, I want a big house, they say I want a modest house. But you know, let me have this room and this room and this room and this room and that room. So that's what this was. So we we said, you know, we want a 5000 square foot building, but this is everything we want in it and then they broke the news to us that it's 23,000 square feet. So

Steve:

right. But when you dream big, sometimes you're able to realize bigger dreams. So

Unknown:

we had to it was you know the of the Ferber Kaufmann name on the building and they were leaders not only as donors but also as is them in the mere family. So is our Ferber Kaufman's one family in mere? You know, they were the leaders not only themselves, you know, giving contributions but selling our idea to their friends and family and in helping us reach this goal that seems insurmountable.

Steve:

It's not just the money you need the brains in the the dedication of people to make that happen, right. I mean, quite often peak organizations are kind of fighting to get the funding but without the spirit of and the involvement of people to make that happen. Damn, come true. The money doesn't do anything.

Unknown:

Right, you know, yeah, that's true.

Steve:

Do you have the head of you have all the dreams in our money then they also got a problem. So when you get both of them, it's great. Then in 2010, you got the gymnasium. I just see the elkus gymnasium and that that's an amazing facility there because you can use that for so many different things.

Unknown:

Yes, we do. That's a That is a fascinating story in itself. That was a donor that came to us. We didn't go to him. He had a brother and a sister is he's a, he's a Detroit family. His parents moved to California. Law long time ago, I think in the 50s. And they, they had a son and a daughter who had special needs. And they moved with their son and daughter to California. His parents have passed away. And he was the guardian to take care of his brother and sister, and they live in California. And he had his family lived here. And he took very good care of them. And then when they passed away, he wanted to contribute to them. He wanted to create something that would have made their lives better. Had they have had it when they were children. And he told us that he came to our building, and he says, I can't believe what my brother and sister missed out on. So he said, what could you do, and we were telling him about things that we're doing already that he could find the set, now I want to make a difference. And I want something that you're going to have now that you wouldn't have that's going to make the lives of children, like my brother and sister were when I was growing up better. And we told him a gym, and he built the gym, on his own. He hired the builder, the architect, and paid all the bills and gave us a gift of a gym. It's really beautiful story.

Steve:

It really is. And it's goes back to what an inspiration This place is. And it attracts that kind of dedication, and those kind of dollars and that kind of vision.

Unknown:

We're blessed.

Steve:

It's beautiful. And then the fiber center was in 2014. So that's coming on six years now. And that's

Unknown:

was it 2008? We bought the property actually, then we opened in 16.

Steve:

So we come in, oh, okay, we opened in 16. Okay. And that for anybody who does not know, is a combination. It's a soul cafe. And I did eat lunch there last time. It was very, very good. And, and also then the soul studio where you have very robust art program.

Unknown:

Yes. So art is, you know, When, when, in 1994, when my wife and I were recruiting families to join our program, you know, one of the things we told everyone is, you know, we're not an organization, you know, we're your family. This is not a nonprofit organization, offering a program where your family they came back to, to us with that, you know, 20 years later,

Steve:

you planted a crop

Unknown:

there, said, by the way, you know, if someone's your family when they're five years old, so what are they when they're 25? You know, they're not your family anymore. So, you know, you basically have responsibility to develop, you started with children, you started with young children. You know, what, what are you what are you going to do to help us now, you know, as we come to this, you know, Cliff that parents talk about it 26 years old, when the educational system is not available anymore. And they, they really pushed us to, to, to do something and in, you know, in the way God works, it's, it happened at literally, within the same time, within a few months period of us looking into this program. So I, I started. So in May of, of was 2012, is when we started dreaming about this thing to open a cafe. We didn't even have the art studio, we were going to do something for adults with within a few months. So, David Farber told me, you know, my father, he told me that his parents had a company and they had his father was planning to leave all the money that he has left to charity when he passed away. But now their stock went up so much that his father wants to give away a certain amount of it in his lifetime. So do you have any ideas? Anything coming up?

Steve:

Son of a gun?

Unknown:

Yeah, three months later, literally a few months after that conversation as I'm talking to the farmers. I get a unsolicited donation of $2,000 from from Kevin Furlong. worked for the dresner Foundation. I call him up and I say, you know, you gave an unsolicited donation, you know, why would you want to learn more about the organization, he says, Sure. And he came by, and told us that his foundation just was funded with the passing of the, of the benefactor. And, and they're looking for interesting projects. And, and they each wanted, he didn't want to be the only one. So they put up the between the two of them, they put up the majority of the money. And then we raised the rest of it to do the project,

Steve:

or the studio is amazing in talking to your director there. I mean, if someone was interested in doing a certain type of art, they find a way to make that happen. We understand you have a kiln there for firing lottery. Because somebody wanted to make pottery. When you mentioned the volunteers, you you have the teenagers and how that works very well with the special needs children and their needs. What but again, at the special, they these teenagers get older too. And so do you have to actively recruit a new crap or do the dangers themselves? teenagers keep spread the news? Other people keep replacing? Yes. Okay.

Unknown:

Yeah, they keep coming. More and more teenagers keep coming.

Steve:

So teenagers recruit new teenagers to come? Yes. In other words, which, you know, it's amazing, because in my nonprofit, it's like pulling teeth to get anybody to volunteer to do anything. And quite often, I guess what will happen is we're asking the parents to volunteer, and we're not getting a great response from that. Man, we need to start talking to young people. Exactly. Yeah. Because you seem to I mean, I've seen the photos, you have this a robust group of people there. And they can replenish themselves as they get older. That's, that's a nonprofit's dream come true.

Unknown:

We're blessed to have that. And we have a great team that, you know, helps us keep the teenagers motivated and committed and on time, you know, that it comes together with all those challenges, you know,

Steve:

right. You do have to have someone manage

Unknown:

probably like three or four staff people managing them.

Steve:

Yeah. But it's, that's a super, like I said, it's a super advantage to have is to have, because I'm that I'm sure you would be doing many good things without the teenage volunteers, but nowhere near as many good things. No,

Unknown:

exactly.

Steve:

I want to take a short break now. And when we come back, we're going to explore some of the Friendship Circle programs that we haven't talked about yet and provide and how they provide support friendship and inclusion to individuals in the families that Friendship Circle.

Kerry Johnson:

Thank you for tuning in to navigating life as we know it. I'm Alex, your producer and motivational speaker, you can do it, I believe in you. First off, thank you for listening to our podcast. It's listeners like you that make this podcast what it is, and we would love your feedback. It's very easy to give it just join our Facebook group the N Locky chat cafe where we occasionally share fun memes and ask questions, we want to know what you want to know. So we can go and do the hard work and dig it up for you stop on by and give us a hand. Secondly, if anyone wants to know more about the Friendship Circle, please follow our Facebook page. We will be posting links and information about the Friendship Circle and the organizations that are behind it later this week. I won't keep you any longer from the interview and the unlock key chat cafe to come. So have a wonderful listening experience.

Steve:

Welcome back to navigating life as we know it. I have one more quote I wanted to put in here because it inspired me and I think you know the person who said this, people with special needs can really teach us life lessons that we cannot get from professors. They are people who are capable of doing things that same as typical productive people of society. And what they have to offer can be truly inspiring and amazing. And that of course was your wife. Yes. was the director over at the soul center. Chris.

Unknown:

Oh, and here also she's okay. She's as she's she runs all the programs, right. We're called the wrestlers. Yes.

Steve:

Yeah. Okay. The goal is that you have in your first page on your website, it said to support friendship and inclusion for special needs people because it's something that they deserve. Some of the support programs. You've talked about a few of them are reading the was like 40 different programs. Yes. And it's amazes me at the diversity in actually 26 years is not Not that long of a time to develop all that you have, and also have 40 different programs to meet different needs. I would imagine some of those probably developed as a result of a need that became apparent, or or someone came in with a passion. Is that?

Unknown:

Absolutely, because I

Steve:

think you start out saying, you know, in 26 years, we're gonna have 40 programs.

Unknown:

No, it's, you know, it's fat input from families and input from volunteers, and what what we saw in other places, and some of our own ideas, so and then, you know, tried it, you know, a lot of, you know, you have sports, and you have, you know, activities that we go out into the community, and then different kinds of camps. We did a, we did. For several years, we did a bike camp, we hired a company that has special bikes that help teach individuals with special needs, that have a specifically difficult time learning how to ride a bike. And these are adults who have tried as a child to learn how to ride a bike, and now can't. And they had this program, where they can teach kids how to or adults how to ride a bike. So we we several years, we brought down that program, and we trained, depending on the year between 40 and 80, kids and adults in to ride a bike, give them that freedom, that joy that, you know, the special snowflakes, not adaptive bikes, no, no, no, these are regular bikes. And they, they're adaptive bikes for training. So this, they have this technology that not you know, they have this patent that they have that essentially, they put different weight on the two sides of the bikes to balance them. And then as the rider learns more and more, they shorten that balance, and it's so you literally can progressively learn in five days, an hour and a half each, you go from thinking that you would do this person would never ride a bike to 85% of the participants. Go ahead and write bikes from regular bikes.

Steve:

It's amazing what we sometimes think people don't ever do, right? prove us wrong. Yes, all you have to do is give them the opportunity and provide the means and they surprise us every time every time. Some of the support programs you've already talked about here, life lessons and life lessons to at the meinberg village a little bit more about the fiber studio, again, I said the food was excellent. When I ate lunch there, the training program. That's where you're teaching some young people about food preparation and food service, and they're able to go out and get market paying jobs,

Unknown:

right. So when when we when we were looking to see what we can do to help adults with special needs. So we saw that we saw these two concepts around the country, these are not some of the things we have in our children's building are innovative in the way that we haven't seen it anywhere else. These two concepts of having a food establishment that employs people have special needs. And an art studio. We've seen in other places. We think the reason why both of those areas are good ideas, you know, in food, it adds, it gives a lot of socialization. And the food industry is very difficult to you know, it's very difficult to find good help. And, you know, individuals with special needs, you know, once they learn how to do something, they'll be your best employee because there's no drama, they'll show up and they'll be there on time. And they're so we feel that that's a very good industry to put people into and help people get into and also to socialization while they're working their art is also great and has been successful in other places. And that is because you know art is an equalizer. There's nothing. There's nothing about art that makes it that makes someone that has special needs any less likely to be successful in it than someone that doesn't have.

Steve:

I saw one of your videos about a young woman who is able to draw with her eye movement. Right, Felicia, that is just amazing. That was one of our she did such a great job with it too. That was

Unknown:

an amazing moment in our in the history of our organization. You know, that's when when, when bassy called me and told me about what happened. She says levy these are these are the things we this is this is the kind of thing we wait for. The big payback for the hardest is the big payback. Right, right. And this was a person who as you as you know from the video is nonverbal and she has cerebral palsy and she has a boyfriend and she has The boyfriend and she wanted to create art. And, and she was we were our artists where she has some control over her feet over a leg. So we attach paintbrushes to their overhead. Until, you know, Marcy told Adam at a meeting says you have to figure something out for Felicia, she needs to break out and then realize, you know, when she talks by using her eyes by using her, her eyes type using this special technology. So Adam said, You know what, if if it can type then it could be as a mouse. So just as you would draw with a mouse with your hand, she should be able to draw with her eyes, even though with her highest. It's much more difficult. But that's so he found that technology that could do that. And then

Steve:

it is basically her spirit and determination to make it happen. Yes, I can't imagine what something would look like if I tried to draw it with my eyes.

Unknown:

We actually have a piece in the cafe we have Adam taking a shot Adams a 30 years experiences and artists. We had him try to draw something with his eyes and you see what it looks like. It's nothing close to what Felicia? That

Steve:

it's amazing. Yeah. And it's something that we'll put on the website too, that that when video is specifically because it's just says a lot and she might be nonverbal. And my son is mostly nonverbal, but you can tell a lot from her smile. Yes, she really appreciates that. And that what he had to do for her self esteem that she could realize some skill and ability like that, or have it recognized by other people. And did I see that at an auction whenever drawing the sold? Yes,

Unknown:

for for $14,000. Yes, yeah,

Steve:

she looked pretty amazed. Yes. But what they can do to your spirit is to how I can contribute?

Unknown:

Exactly. And she knows heard I'm being and she's bringing joy and other people.

Steve:

That's amazing. And then others supports what the other thing that I really, really impressed with Friendship Circle, is that you would do so many things for parents. Because being a parent, I realized that this is I have four neurotypical kids, and I have one with special needs. And that's a world of difference between that desert and that the pressure is a challenge is raising neurotypical kids, I will never say that that was easy. But it's a lot different when you're with someone for the long term who has needs that are not going to be met without certain amount of help. And our son lives with us still. But I know that creates a lot of pressure. And especially its parents are under a lot of strain. And you have things like parents night on the lake, a number of us looked at they haven't said I want to go there. He was wonderful, you know, or mom's summer soiree. You know, that sounds like something. And I think he had a workshop for dads woodworking or something. A number of things, you got parents seminars, which is great from education, online resources, all kinds of things people can access, you have one of the most robust port websites I've ever seen. Wherever you have working on your website in house, sure you never lose them. Thank you. Yes,

Unknown:

we don't. So I'll tell you something, talking about parents, you know, that gets down to the core. So it's 25 years later. And right now it's, it's 315. So five o'clock today, we have five families of that have a child with special needs, but the entire family are coming to my home for a Sabbath dinner for Friday night dinner. And that's the core. It's It's It's person to person. And they know, I'm not I'm not an executive director of an organization. I'm their friend and their family. And that's what's happening. You know that that's happening tonight. And from here, I'm going to go to Oak Park where a couple of where a few of our volunteers are there and we're going to pick them up so that they could be in our home and help with the volunteers that are familiar with the children. So they're going to be there as well to help these families with the children at our at our dinner table. And we're going to have about 30 people for dinner tonight. And that's, that's where it's at. You know, that's the core of what we do. And when I'm going to be sitting there tonight with these families, that's the center you know that that's really who we are. Everything else is, you know, all the buildings we build and everything we do. All, for us to express what what, what what really is going there are tools to protect the Earth today.

Steve:

Right? It's a, it's just to me that just you really put the nail on it, you talk a lot, initially with these families, you said that we're part of your family, it's not a matter of we're friends or we're this or we're family, right? And that makes all the difference in the world. Right?

Unknown:

We had a problem called One thing I wish you knew. That's all. Okay, that was different.

Steve:

I imagined some of these programs, live a lifespan and then there's something else because that keeps it fresh. Yes. And then with the last two things you had down there that were central to your, your mission here is friendship and inclusion. In the friendship, again, you have this quote, on the website, I believe, don't walk behind me, I mean, at least don't walk in front of me, I may not follow, just walk beside me and be my friend. And that was the famous person and I. And I think that encapsulates just about everything you have said about your program is here. The fact you have natural supports in unpaid volunteers makes all the difference in the world. I can't imagine what it'd be like to realize that the people that you interact with every day are paid to be there. Right? That has an I don't think that's lost, and somebody even if they have an intellectual challenge, to know that somebody's job is to be with them. But for have somebody to be there because they value your friendship makes all the difference. I

Unknown:

agree that they they definitely do feel that. So as a volunteer or

Steve:

well, and the last thing he said of the three was inclusion, but I think inclusion isn't so much what you do, it's who you are here because everything is built around inclusion.

Unknown:

Right. And that's and that's the purpose of it. It's it's create a, you know, if you see inclusion as, as an accommodation to people with special needs, so we're going to include them because we want to accommodate them. And it's the moral thing to do to accommodate someone by including them. So there will always be limitations to your inclusion. If you see inclusion as the natural state. And when you're not inclusive, Everyone misses out. It the puzzle is not complete, and the community needs. The individuals with special needs to be included, in order to be whole, just as much as those that people have special needs need to be included. So then it becomes natural, you're not you're not helping anyone, you're just shining a light on something and people realize that they benefit from it. And it just shifts the paradigm. And inclusion becomes not something you have to fight for not something you have to convince people about but it becomes the natural state.

Steve:

Yep, reminds me back to the original example of the puzzle. Right without your inclusion without your part of it our puzzle isn't complete. And that is true equality. Exactly. That's that we talked about the Daniel B Sobel Friendship House in what you do there and then you matters is actually a part of that.

Unknown:

That's a you matter is you matter as a program because that that came out of our, our, you know, we were in two spaces, I would say, you know, we were in the mental health space, but mostly for adults. And we were in the teen space with teen volunteers. So we actually have a team leader, year Reber yard and Blumstein who runs our teen division. And for a little while, he ran our mental health division as well. And then when that happened, he came across this cross section of those two divisions where he had teenage volunteers who were coming to him with all kinds of mental health issues. And we developed this program called you Mater, which is basically telling teens that they matter. So it's it has all different types of expressions it expresses itself in programs that we do in schools all around the Southeast Michigan. And also, we have suicide prevention trainings and discussions. And one of the things we have is a very successful series called One thing I wish you knew, it's where people come and share a challenge that they have that no one around them knew that they had and you know what I went through this and it's empowering to them empowering to others who may share the same challenges to convince them to come forward and and identify that. for that. We've been the was a small program until another family came along that had a suffered a tragedy of a suicide in their family. That's the kukus family, they had a son, Andrew. And they started a foundation called the Andrew cookus foundation for social anxiety. And they started off just funding us with a grant. And now they, you know, really want to merge right into us and express their legacy for Andy, you know, through us and our you matter program.

Steve:

It's a beautiful thing. It hasn't overcome the pain, but it lets them know that they're able to help somebody else. And that's

Unknown:

right, similar to what the soul bowls did. And they know

Steve:

what's next on the horizon?

Unknown:

Who,

Steve:

you know, it reminds me of, I've heard this, I'm sure you have to have that. You want to make God laugh, tell him what your plans are? Yes, because he'll always have a different plan. And his is the best one. But it comes as a surprise. And you don't always get any advance warning on it. And something just happened because like you said, a need existed, it was identified. And then a donor came along and said,

Unknown:

so right to do this. So right now we're in that process with a bakery, the cafe. Before we did the cafe, we did a pilot to see how we can train individuals with special needs in in the kitchen. And we started with baking. And then when we moved into the cafe, many of the folks that that were very successful in the bakery, we're not able to make it into cafe because it's a different animal. So we're they came to us and said, You know what, you know, we were our kids were part of your pilot, and now they're not part of the program, because it's not for them, are you going to make a bakery. And so one donor came along for a pilot, but now we're looking for partners established bakery partners that may be and will open a bakery.

Steve:

That's an extra course the bakery will supply the cafe Exactly.

Unknown:

And others.

Steve:

So this is something I think is going to keep building out in surprising ways that we'll find other ways identify the Solon people. It'll make it. It's just, it's an amazing and amazing thing you have going here. And I would expect 26 years from now, if I were to come back, you'd have a whole different amazing story,

Unknown:

you will come back and you'll tell that story. course in 26

Steve:

years, I will be about 100 years old. So this is a I thank you very much for your time today. I know you're a busy man. And it's the end of the week. Yes. And you've got 30 people coming for dinner tonight. I have to pick up.

Kerry Johnson:

Hi, this is Carrie. I'm the manager of the unlock a chat cafe and master the French press. No, really, I have a master of this. Welcome to our cafe, grab a cup of coffee, or a glass of wine depending on the time. And we will begin our chat about our visit with Rabbi shum. Tom at the Friendship Circle. Steve's just walked in. So let's get to it. Steve, what did you learn

Steve:

during your visit, I learned a lot. It's really hard to say these are the three important things that I learned what I went there with expectations that, you know, this is something we would love to do to have a Friendship Circle typer organization in West Michigan,

Kerry Johnson:

okay, but you will also a little bit intimidated by the aspect of interviewing this person. So yes, how did that go?

Steve:

Well, okay, I am not Jewish, it's not my background, I didn't have many friends of the Jewish faith. They when I heard he was an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. I find it intimidating, cuz I didn't know if he would be unapproachable or somehow in the theological realm above everybody. I really didn't know what to expect that I found the most warm, genuine human beings that I could imagine indeed, like, it really changed my thinking entirely. But I you know, we have preconceived notions and and I blew it out the window. I think that I learned a lot just by having a conversation with this man. But I went in there with the expectation that I could find out okay, what do you have a plan or a manual? How did you do this? How can we just replicate it? It's not

Kerry Johnson:

like your accent let's

Steve:

go it's not like getting a recipe from somebody else and making it and saying, Ah, you know, I just did with Emerald, it you know, I made this dish. It doesn't work that way. It's what goes into it. And I use the expression with with Rabbi Shem Tov that I was looking for the special sauce so that I could go back to West Michigan and recreate this formula, do a Friendship Circle of our own. I find out that it's Their philosophy, it's what they have in their heart. And they are more true to their mission and vision than I've ever seen other organization do that even kind of attention,

Kerry Johnson:

some philosophy? No, no, no, it's gone away past that.

Steve:

Not everything they do is spiritually infused. But everything is spiritually driven. What it basically means it's coming from their heart, they have the view that each person is a soul that is worthy of endless love that might be covered with disability or covered with addiction, because they work with people that have addictions to, or whatever that might be, might be covered with personality disorder,

Kerry Johnson:

how he said, it was this Raul,

Steve:

we're all covered with the shell, which we acquire in life, but inside of each person, is this beautiful, perfect souls worthy of endless love. And that when you approach life that way, that is the special sauce, but it's intrinsic to the entire recipe. It is love embedded in it. Right? And so I mean, how can you not be impressed with that? And it, it isn't just a matter of any particular spiritual belief, like you said, they serve all people, because that is what's gonna be a particular

Kerry Johnson:

spiritual belief. But it's, it is a spiritual belief. And as a result, these things come forward when they're, they were thinking about what, what shall we do next? And all of a sudden, somebody comes forward and says, Oh, I want to do something.

Steve:

Yeah, it's strange. How would they have an idea, then somebody comes along and says, gee, I have some money. It's like, how can that not be a God thing? It seems within a short period of time where they have a perceived need, or an idea or a great concept for something. And then someone comes along and says, You know, I want to I want to give a gift,

Kerry Johnson:

right? But I also like it, he talks about how what we originally started that kind of evolved over to this other thing, and wasn't what we were necessarily thinking about. But yeah, let's do that. And the idea of the the teenagers volunteering, and bringing more teenagers and more teenagers and watching is and why, why did they keep bringing their friends there? Because everybody was accepted at a basic level of your person. I'm a person cool.

Steve:

That was it. I like your word. He also mentioned inclusion, it's not something which is forced on the outside because it's the right thing to do or we make accommodations it's not

Kerry Johnson:

accommodating right? It's

Steve:

inclusion as an accommodating its inclusion is recognizing our commonality.

Kerry Johnson:

You all there. I love his his puzzle piece analogy. Yeah. And it isn't just because I'm a mom of a kid with autism, which puzzle pieces is definitely the symbol that's often used to recognize that right and, and I love that because oleum is a puzzle piece. And I feel sorry for people who are too busy to take the time to look at that piece. You know, when you're putting together a puzzle, you've got to look at the pieces. And you can't just look at the shapes, you have to look at the colors and see how they relate to the other folks, this is coming from someone who is a master at doing pitcher puzzles, so I can see why you would think that has been a great analogy. I loved it. I'm nothing I love that.

Steve:

But it is it is really true that that it's not just a matter of marveling if somebody could paint something with using their eye movement, it's a matter of this is the great gift inside of her this this artistic this beauty. Now that was allowed to be because somebody fruition because somebody saw it somebody, somebody took the time to look,

Kerry Johnson:

they waited, they listened. They observed, they talked to her and said, You know, I want to I want to create something I want to

Steve:

you know, we're we're a lot of our disability thought is not intentionally, but it seems like almost always more deficit thinking, like what can't they do? What help do they need? Where do we have to supplement something, this deeply held spiritual belief, just the opposite of that. It's what everybody can contribute. Let's take a look at what their contribution is. Yeah. And whether it's great or small by somebody else's standard means nothing because it is great by their standards, and it's great by those that perceive it. There's no grading of this, there's no value in it, other than the value that everybody is equal.

Kerry Johnson:

Right. I had a I had a coworker who said, You know, I you know, I talked to them, and I really try to I try to you know, speak to him and, and, you know, I don't know I just I don't know my doing it's okay. And I'm like, maybe maybe the only thing that I could add to and I have to tell you Appreciate that you talking to Liam, instead of to me, and I'm going to interpret. I love that you talk to Liam. But maybe if you have the time, if you can wait, Liam will talk to you. And trust me, it is worth the weight. And I think that's, that's a piece that so many new typicals out there, Miss because they're so busy going their through their agenda. But wait,

Steve:

Okay, wait, we live in a world of instant gratification, we want the incident response to and we're not waiting to to be with the person and let them speak or communicate on their own terms. But there's many things about this visit that really, I found warmly inviting.

Kerry Johnson:

And what a wonderful time for us to present this during October, which is disability awareness. Yes, I know, I know that you you say, this is a long time coming. I would I did the see almost a year ago. And but the timing again, I gotta say that perhaps that was also part of all of this spiritual, heartfelt timing is involved here, as well.

Steve:

So you're saying that I don't have a schedule, but God has one. I'm fine with that. I'm fine with that. I'm not really that good at scheduling. And I think that for our listeners, you know, October is a very difficult month for us. And we'll have a little more talk on this later. Because that is the month in which our twins were born in November one month later is when one of them passed away. And so October and November are difficult months emotionally for us. Yeah. But when I revisit this talk in know about that perfect loving soul that is worthy of boundless love. I know that was both of our sons. And I know it's with Nicholas and who passed away. And I know it's with Liam and he is beautiful human being. So I mean, there's a lot I can that there's a lot that that I take away from this. And the best thing I can say is go on a field trip, give them a call, say you'd like to visit. If you live close by there, it's wonderful. There are friendship circles throughout the country. If you're you are hearing this and you are close to one go by isn't an exclusively Jewish community, it's there to serve. The The goal is to repair the world. And they have a mission and it's faith driven, and that everything they do is faith infused, which means they have some programming for like Jewish teenagers learning about their culture, etc. But that is not done in a way to exclude. I wish I could say these are the three takeaways I can't. The entire experience was a takeaway. Fabulous. So I guess that's it for right now you want to take us out one, roll the credits,

Kerry Johnson:

I will do a little bit of that. I would like to give a big shout out. And thank you to Alex, who is our producer and our resident nag to move these things along. Yeah. And to Holly Johnson. She is our beautiful web designer and creative entity instead of mom talking, oops. And then our lovely, lovely, lovely intern, Daniela, who keeps all of the packaging and submitting to the various entities and drawing in the information that we want to be able to put on our website and our Facebook so that you can go and see some of these things that Steve references in the interview. Do it. Go enjoy it. And thank you for listening to us.

Steve:

And we do want to thank our beta listeners are the people that Google Tesla listen to this before we release it. Thank you very much. Also, thank you for listening. We'll catch you next time.