When Bassie Shemtov and her husband founded Friendship Circle in 1994, they never could’ve dreamt that it would have blossomed into what it is today.
It all started with a desire for outreach and to help others in the metro Detroit community. It quickly became evident that individuals with disabilities needed the platform to create meaningful and lasting friendships with those outside their inner circle. That is how Friendship Circle was born.
The Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers selected Shemtov to be the third Disability Pride Month Game Changers honoree for her dedication to ensuring that individuals with disabilities receive the support and friendship they deserve.
“We literally started with eight volunteers, and we drove them to the child’s home,” Shemtov said of the organization’s early days. “We wanted to give mom and dad an hour where they can take showers, eat dinner, whatever they needed. Little did we know, four years later, we would have too many volunteers.”
Friendship Circle quickly began to evolve. Shemtov said that as the organization saw a surplus of volunteers, she had an epiphany.
“This is not just about doing a good deed and helping somebody, it’s actually a win-win for our volunteers,” Shemtov said. “Suddenly, the volunteers come to spend time with an individual who has a disability, and it is the happiest, most comfortable feeling.”
Shemtov oversees all staff and constantly meets with directors across all Friendship Circle’s areas to establish what’s next for the organization and how Friendship Circle can grow even more, while her husband, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, handles the fundraising initiatives.
There are two divisions at Friendship Circle — children and adult. The children’s division has multiple subdivisions.
During the school year, nearly 2,500 kids from metro Detroit come through the Friendship Circle’s Weinberg Village, which is a 5,000 square-foot, life skill-building, realistic town.
“We have real money, real traffic lights, a pet shop, theater, drug store, salon, bank, library and a medical office,” Shemtov said. “The goal is the skills they learn while in the Village translate into the real world.”
Every evening and throughout Sundays, volunteers get to spend one-on-one time with their Friendship Circle family to get to know the kids better. There are 25 weekly programs available for signup, including sports, karate, music, art and more. During these programs, a volunteer spends quality time with their Friendship Circle child.
During the summer, Friendship Circle offers seven weeks of camp, including five weeks of day camp and two weeks of overnight. Each week, 55-60 children participate in fun-filled activities that are safe and engaging. The overnight camp provides children, ages 6 and above, with a unique and incredible experience that includes swimming, canoeing, nature walks, sports and much more.
The adult division of Friendship Circle is focused on giving adults with disabilities the opportunity to be creative, active and included. The Soul Studio Program allows adults to create artwork specific to their interests, with seven-plus mediums available to choose from. Throughout the week, 85 adults are creating artwork alongside a facilitating artist.
Friendship Circle also has a Soul Cafe Trainee Program, where adults with disabilities are given the opportunity to work in a restaurant environment. Trainees learn from restaurant staff in all areas of the cafe, including prepping food, bussing tables, hosting, dish washing and assisting baristas. This opportunity not only allows adults with disabilities to learn valuable experience but also to develop social, organization and planning skills.
“Right now, there are 90 Friendship Circles around the world following our model,” Shemtov said. “It’s not only a database for the families that are desperate for practical support, but there’s a deeper, important thing that it accomplishes.”
Through the countless programs available through Friendship Circle, the mission is clear: to create and foster friendship in the lives of individuals with disabilities, while also providing skills, experience and opportunity that translates to community contributions.
“The greatest impact that I believe Friendship Circle has is opening the eyes of our society to realize what life’s really about,” Shemtov said. “Life is not about the superficial things, it’s not about the grades and the best schools and the biggest accomplishments. But rather looking within ourselves and tapping into our real potential of really thinking about others and seeing the beauty about every single human being.”
Friendship Circle continues to grow and expand both its children and adult divisions. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization purchased Dakota Bread, a popular local bakery. With this addition to the adult division, there are currently 20 individuals being trained, and the bakery is doing nearly 100% more business.
“A few years ago, we were introduced to the impactful work taking place through Shemtov and Friendship Circle of Michigan,” said Red Wings and Tigers director of community impact Kevin Brown. “From state-of-the-art spaces for individuals to express themselves, to operating a cafe and bakery that provide hands-on career opportunities, what Shemtov and her team have built in Michigan for thousands of persons with disabilities is nothing short of amazing.”
Shemtov said being recognized by the Red Wings and Tigers for her work with Friendship Circle means so much to her and to the organization as a whole.
“I’m really excited to be bringing this message out,” Shemtov said. “I know this is going to get Friendship Circle’s name out there a little bit more and allow people to see what we do.
“It’s really all about the potential and the importance of every single individual. It’s not about what they physically could do that makes a person important. It’s about their existence and how they affect people — you have no idea what each person’s potential is.”