Happiness , Fun and Community Shine at FCwalk and CARnival
Social distance doesn’t keep people from raising awareness of people with special needs at annual event
As Leo, 12, stuck his head out the sunroof of the car window, he couldn’t help but be excited. He was at LifeTown in Livingston to take part in the 2020 FCwalk CARnival and try his luck at a few games. Friendship Circle celebrated its annual post-walk event keeping social distance, but while being socially connected.
He was joined in the car by his grandmother, Brenda, and both were dressed in a tie-dyed, FCwalk T-shirts they had made just a few days earlier at LifeTown. “It feels good to be here with everyone,” she said.
Indeed, the October 25 FCwalk and post-event festivities looked a bit different than in previous years due to the pandemic and restrictions on crowds and in-person events. What wasn’t different was the enthusiasm and smiles of the volunteers who came to help run the CARnival booths, hand out T-shirts, prizes and food, and the families from across the region who came to celebrate Friendship Circle.
More than 500 people, including participants and volunteers, took part in the CARnival.
“This is our fourth year coming and I’m so impressed,” said Debbie Kirchen who came with her family including sons Daniel, 7, and Josh, 4, to show their support for the “Rebecca’s World” walk team. “It’s amazing to see all the volunteers and everything is so well thought out.”
Also having a blast was 11-year-old Cristina Irizarry, who came with her father, Juan. “She loves it here,” her father said. “It’s beautiful how they put this all together.”
FCwalk 2020 began with a virtual kickoff on Facebook that included a video roundup of the various virtual events Friendship Circle has been hosting since the pandemic began and messages from FC families about the role the organization plays in their lives.
Among the speakers was 31-year-old Lindsay Kreinberg, who was one of Friendship Circle’s first participants when it began some 20 years ago. Since the pandemic began, Lindsay has been a regular participant in many of the new online young adult programs Friendship Circle is offering. “I still love the Friendship Circle,” she said. Added her father, Larry, “Lindsay really looks forward to interacting with her peers, organizers and volunteers.”
In the spirit of togetherness, a ceremonial baton toss was shown on screen with walk participants from Short Hills to West Orange and from Livingston and Hoboken and beyond appearing to lob a blue baton from person to person, and town to town. In reality, everyone, was in their own homes and social distant to ensure everyone’s safety.
“Over this past year, when our kids needed to remain home and socially isolated due to the Covid pandemic, the Friendship Circle stepped in to offer virtual programs, drive-by programs or to simply calling our kids to check in on them and see how they were doing,” Avi Shua, whose son, Eitan, participates in FC programs, said in the prewalk video. “Through their actions and commitments to our kids, we are reminded of the importance and the contribution Friendship Circle has made to our community and our kids.”
Also sharing greetings in the kickoff show were a few celebrity guests including Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner Kersee and Giants’ great Plaxico Burress, who said, “Let’s go, we’re going to walk, we are going to run, we are going to continue to defy the odds that is what we do.”
Unlike in previous years when all FCwalk participants were in a single locale, this year people were encouraged to walk in their own hometowns, neighborhoods and parks. The goal was to walk together, united at a single time, but by staying safe and distant, and that’s what participants did.
Among those that walked were Team J Is for Justin, made up of Justin Frey, 20, an FC participant, his family and friends. Though they couldn’t walk at LifeTown, supporters of Team J Is for Justin, showed up in earnest at the Frey family home to walk with Justin, according to his mom, Genevieve Spielberg. “There was a big group of us, and we walked twice around the block,” she said. “For Justin, it was great because it was safe, but it was nice because he got to see the people we ordinarily walk with.”
Spielberg noted that “the work and the programming that Friendship Circle has achieved during the pandemic, even virtually, and the brilliant drive-through opportunities are something other organizations haven’t been able to do.”
She added that donors understand that Friendship Circle doesn’t just benefit people with special needs, but that it also helps the typically developing teen volunteers “grow, and learn that just because someone might look or function a little differently, they are still fabulous. It is a tremendous life lesson that will be with them for the rest of their lives.”
In total, the walk raised more than $160,000 to date for Friendship Circle programs.
After the walk ended, it was to the post-event CARnival fun—Justin attended with his dad, Armin Frey—and the volunteers were determined to make as happy and exciting for the kids.
“It feels good to help and give back to the community,” said teen volunteer Leora Glajchen, 15, as she handed out prize packs to each car full of children during the CARnival. “Seeing all the kids smile warms my heart, especially in the cold.”
Said fellow teen volunteer Kyle Fink, 15, who was helping hand out hot dogs and knishes, “I think the whole carnival is a great concept and I wanted to be here to help someone else have a good day. It makes me feel great to see them happy. Especially in times like this, it’s important for us to find ways to get together and I think this was a great way of coming together was a community.”
Families gather to support children with special needs
It was, everyone agreed, an absolutely great day to be outside. It was even better, they said, because they were outside and walking for friendship and to show their support for children and teens with special needs at the annual FCwalk.
“We have friends who volunteer with [Friendship Circle] frequently and they encouraged us to come out,” said Kavya Nivarthy, 16. “Getting to meet the people and the kids and families, who deal with this on a daily basis is really an eye-opening way to spend your weekend.”
Added her classmate Kennedy Smith, 16, attending the FCwalk is a different way to help others and do community service. Plus, “it was great to be outdoors.”
Before the walk kick-off time, some people decorated team signs—there were more than 130 fundraising teams this year—while others enjoyed pony rides and a petting zoo. Then it was time for the walk, and the crowds moved down to the bottom of the LifeTown parking lot eager to get started.
“It’s amazing to see everybody,” said FC director of operation Levi Grossbaum. “Your participation enables us to always say yes, which is a hallmark of Friendship Circle. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you!”
Also addressing the pre-walk crowd was Sam Twersky, 12, who created the “Sam’s Mitzvah Madness” team for his bar mitzvah. Sam’s team raised more than $10,000 for Friendship Circle. Noting that people ask him why he’s so supportive of Friendship Circle, Sam said, that he could tell you it’s because of all the amazing people there or how much fun he has.
“The real answer,” Sam continued, “is that I feel great when I’m here. I get to see the best of everyone, and I am exposed to a lot of chesed [kindness.]”
With that, members of Eitan and the Tractors fundraising team—led by the Shua family–stepped forward and cut the ribbon with the help of Friendship Circle’s CEO Zalman Grossbaum.
Then it was off! Kids, teens, parents, volunteers and a large contingent of furry friends, AKA dogs on leashes, walked the route as they laughed, cheered and waved.
“It was really nice, you got to see everyone’s emotions,” said 11-year-old Mia Ashenberg. “Some people were so excited they started running.”
Added her friend Yael Hornung, “I liked seeing all the people being so happy.”
After the walk, everyone headed inside of LifeTown to experience all the wonderful activities for the remainder of the afternoon. Families sat at tables in the multipurpose room or settled down on the hallway floor enjoying a makeshift picnic while they snacked on hot dogs, knishes and popcorn.
Others watched a basketball hoops show in the gym as kids jumped and climbed in the indoor playground.
Then there was the opportunity to wander around the LifeTown Shoppes. Sitting outside of the nail salon there was Victoria Franklin, who was visiting LifeTown for the first time, accompanying the Rudzik family for the afternoon.
“I love it. I was very impressed,” said Franklin. “It’s huge and it’s beautiful. It seems to have a lot of program for the kids.”
For the Rudzik family, Chris and Melissa Rudzik and their children Eliana and Ruby, LifeTown has already provided plenty of hours of fun. Their daughter Eliana, 7, attended camp there this past summer. Still, they can’t get over how much the building has to offer. Said dad Chris Rudzik, “It’s an amazing place for the kids to go to.”
Another first-time visitor was Janet Rubin. As a college counselor, Rubin has had many students write college essays about what Friendship Circle and LifeTown mean to them, but she had never experienced it for herself, until the walk.
“I think it’s amazing what’s been done here,” said Rubin. “I am just over-the-moon impressed. It seems like there is nothing that’s not here. I think this is just the beginning.”
The FCwalk may be over but it’s not too late to get involved. To learn more about volunteer opportunities, upcoming activities or more, visit LifeTown.com.
In Spirit of Friendship
2,000 people attend FCwalk to support children with special needs and tour LifeTown
With the pop of a confetti tube and a blast of music, 2,000 people smiled and walked under a cloud-laden sky on Oct. 28 to show their support for children with special needs, enjoy a family fun day and get their first look at the nearly completed LifeTown at the annual FCwalk.
“I think it’s really nice that so many people came out to show they care about Friendship Circle and the kids,” said Shiri Kaplitt, 11, who attended the FCwalk with her family.
Added her friend Michal, 11, “It’s really beautiful and empowering that everyone cares about the community.”
The annual FCwalk, which raised nearly $200,000 for programming for children with special needs, began with a tribute to the victims of the Oct. 27 synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.
“Our hearts are shattered by the horrific attack,” said Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, executive director of Friendship Circle. “We mourn the 11 holy souls so cruelly taken from our midst. We pray for their families, for those injured and the entire Pittsburgh community.”
He asked the crowd to follow the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory, who advised people to help others and do good deeds, “to take away the darkness” in the world.
Representing Friendship Circle parents, Avi Shua, whose son, Eitan, attends FC programs, also addressed the crowd. He explained how important FC is to his whole family; it gives Eitan a place where he belongs and “it gives our entire family a place to volunteer and the opportunity to do so.”
Among those who came out to show their support were the Gohar family. “It’s great for kids with special needs so they can have a place where they can go out and socialize,” said Dana Gohar.
After joking that FC should give out roller blades for next year’s walk, Gohar’s husband, Roy, turned serious and said, “This is a great cause. They should keep it going for many more years.”
Gedaliah Romanoff, who attended with his wife and young children, said that even though Friendship Circle has other fundraisers during the year, the fact that so many people still come out for the annual walk speaks to the importance of its work.
“Friendship Circle is welcoming to all and has a big encompassing mission that touches and affects a lot of people,” said Romanoff.
During the family fun fair, kids enjoyed playing virtual reality games, a petting zoo, bounce houses and a BMX bike show. Cotton candy, popcorn, hot dogs and knishes – not to mention fresh pickles, were also a huge hit.
What really stole the show for many was the chance to finally see LifeTown as it nears final completion. LifeTown is a 53,000 square foot, fully accessible social, recreational and therapeutic center that will house Friendship Circle programs and other programming for children, teens and young adults with special needs.
Many of those who came out of the building and said it was “fantastic” and “magnificent” with a few asking just how FC managed to get all the different activity areas in one space.
Renee Averbach attended the FCwalk with her daughter, Emily, and both were thrilled to see LifeTown. Said Renee: “We are overwhelmed with joy and pride to be a part of Friendship Circle and celebrate LifeTown with our friends old and new.”
For Rebecca Fisher, a FC mom who attended the event with her family the day was one of pure joy. “There’s just nothing not positive about this day. Everything about it makes me smile from ear to ear. Seeing the lives the Friendship Circle has already changed and will changed.”
Her daughter Emme, 10, joined her on a tour of LifeTown and was “excited, happy and joyful” by all she saw. “I really want to go on the playground, and in the pool,” said Emme, adding “I have a lot of favorite [places in LifeTown]. It looks like a lot of fun.”
As the day came to a close, Grossbaum reflected on the afternoon. “We are always amazed by the generosity of spirit and friendship that is shown by the participants of the annual walk. This year, though, was extra special because everyone could walk through the nearly completed LifeTown and see the vision come to life. Hopefully, in the not to distant future, everyone will be able to come back to LifeTown for good.”
Community Gathers for Friendship Circle Walk
Sunday was Shyella Mayk’s birthday, and she spent it with nearly 2,000 friends, most of them new ones, while raising money for Friendship Circle during this year’s FCwalk.
“I’m very happy,” Mayk said, noting that she was participating in the walk on behalf of Team Rebekah. “My closest friends were at this event so I got to spend the day with them and in support Friendship Circle. This is a very well-run event, for a very special cause that is important to a lot of us in this community.”
annual Friendship Circle Walk was held Oct. 29 at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston. Originally scheduled to be held at LifeTown—a 53,000 sq. foot, fully accessible, educational and recreational center---the activities were moved indoors because of heavy rain and winds, but that didn’t stop the family fun. Kids colored walk team signs, got their faces painted and played virtual reality games.
Many hearty walkers then braved the elements to complete the one-mile loop.
Social media sensation Meir Kay served as the day’s master of ceremonies and infused his boundless energy and comedic touch to the day’s activities.
After the walk everyone enjoyed hot dogs, cotton candy and other treats, and then headed into the auditorium for a concert by popular Jewish singer Eli Marcus. Young kids danced in front of the stage, others swayed along with the music from their seats as they clapped and waved their hands in the air.
Chanie Zeichner brought her 9-year-old son, Yossi, to the event saying that he loves everything about Friendship Circle. “It’s an opportunity for him to be with other kids in a safe space and participate in programs that all kids can do,” she said. “Friendship Circle values every kid and adult that is a part of the team.”
FC walker Stuart Yedwab noted that nothing could stop people from coming. “Unfortunately the weather’s not cooperating, but I can’t say it’s dampened anyone’s spirits. You still have so many people here. The intent of the day is still in place.”
That intent is to raise awareness and support for families who have a child, teen or young adult with special needs.
Mitchell Caspert, whose son participants in FC programs, addressed the walk and said that the Friendship Circle has been a meaningful part of his family’s lives for years. “Friends bring out the best in each other. You can’t imagine how much these relationships have meant to our family,” he said, adding that they are lucky to live in a community that “encourages respect and empathy.”
“The walk was great. Rain or shine it’s fun to walk,” said Matthew Cohen, who cut the ceremonial starting-line ribbon. “All the food and the setup was so nice, and the music was good. I had a lot of fun. Everyone should come next year and have fun.”