Pictured is Friendship Circle Co-Founder Bassie Shemtov. West Bloomfield resident Ron Hodess referred to the Friendship Circle as a “world-class program” for individuals with special needs.

Pictured is Friendship Circle Co-Founder Bassie Shemtov. West Bloomfield resident Ron Hodess referred to the Friendship Circle as a “world-class program” for individuals with special needs.

File photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Friendship Circle continues to help individuals with special needs

By: Mark Vest | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published December 3, 2020


WEST BLOOMFIELD — Since co-founding the Friendship Circle in 1994, Bassie Shemtov has noticed a shift in how community members relate to individuals with special needs.

According to its website, the nonprofit organization’s goal is to “provide every individual with special needs the support, friendship and inclusion they deserve.”

Friendship Circle’s role in the community may be playing a large part in helping to achieve that goal.

“Twenty-five years ago, I would say, there was more of a stigma and, like, a pity-party for families that had children with special needs,” Shemtov said. “I feel like that attitude has totally shifted. … When there’s somebody that has special needs that comes around, the community is excited to see them and be a part of their life, and connect with them, rather than kind (of) staying away and uncomfortable, or feeling bad for this person. Instead, they are able to zone in to realize that this person has this exceptional inside that they (want to) connect to.”

Part of the inclusion offered to those with special needs comes via having volunteers spend time getting to know them.

“One of the important things that I feel Friendship Circle accomplished (was) ... educating hundreds and then thousands of teen volunteers, adult volunteers,” Shemtov said.

She said 400-plus teen volunteers get matched up one-on-one with special needs children.

Recently, one-on-one time has come via Zoom chats.

The relationships formed as a result of those matchups can make a big difference when those with special needs and their families are out in the community.

“Many of our kids with special needs are like the celebrities in town,” Shemtov said. “So instead of a family being embarrassed or uncomfortable that their child is misbehaving in public, they have these teens or these young adults or these adults that are so excited to see them because they know who they really are and they went past the superficial behaviors that at least years ago were not looked at as OK. Now there are still people that are not necessarily so nice when they see that, but a lot (of) people are more aware and realize that people with special needs can have a difficult time in public.”

West Bloomfield resident Ron Hodess learned about the Friendship Circle nearly 25 years ago from a friend.

He and his wife have two sons with autism and were looking for ways to get them involved with social activities when “the Friendship Circle came along.”

Both of Hodess’ children are still involved with the nonprofit more than two decades later.

“It’s been exceptional,” Hodess said. “My kids, their social circle revolves around the Friendship Circle. Some of the people they met 20 years ago are now adults with their own lives all over the world, and my kids are still able to stay in touch with some of them.”

Hodess is currently the board chair of the Friendship Circle.

“We’re blessed to have something like this, (a) world-class program right in our backyard,” he said. “There’s over 70 other Friendship Circles that started around the world, and all of them have taken the programming and the things we’re doing here and basically copied our programs. … We were the first.”

Among her roles for the Friendship Circle, Detroit resident Melanie Barnett handles public relations duties.

The 2019 Wayne State University graduate recalled learning about the values of the nonprofit when going through the orientation process.

“I think it made it feel like a good fit,” Barnett said. “People in my generation, we look for work that we feel is meaningful to do. … Seeing everything that I was (going to) be helping with made me feel really good about the job that I accepted.”

Among the services offered by the Friendship Circle is vocational training for those with special needs.

The Friendship Circle’s Soul Café and Dakota Bread Co., both of which are located in West Bloomfield, provide training opportunities.

Shemtov discussed the benefit of employment for individuals with special needs.

“It’s basically — compare the person that is stuck at home and feels like there’s nothing for them in this world when they apply for job after job and they are not accepted and not hired, or they’re hired and then they’re let go, to somebody that can’t wait to get up, get to work and be productive,” Shemtov said.

Job training can take anywhere from a few months to a year or two, depending on the individual.

Special needs individuals who have been properly trained can make for valuable assets for employers.

“It will run the gamut, but a few major, consistent things that we’ve found is that, once they learn the process and they practice that specific task, they will be, overall, more consistent, more on time, less ... distracted and (have) better focus,” Shemtov said. “When they’re coming to work, they are coming to work. … There is no drama, and another thing that we’ve heard a lot is that positive smile and energy is there.”

Shemtov said the primary mission of the Friendship Circle is to “bring friendship and inclusion to individuals who have special needs and their families” and to “begin to look at each person for what they have on their inside rather than on their outside.”

However, it isn’t just those with special needs who get something out of the deal.

“Do yourself a favor,” Shemtov said. “If you (want to) experience true love and true acceptance, unconditional love, give yourself some time to volunteer, connect with an individual with special needs. You will be thankful you did. You will connect in a way and get a feeling that you will try to replicate in your day-to-day life with your own family or with your friends that you’re used to being around. They will teach you many lessons.”

For more information, visit friendshipcircle.org, or call (248) 788-7878.