2016 Friendship Circle Banquet Recap

A night of milestones

LifeTown groundbreaking announced to record crowd

By Faygie Levy

The applause was thunderous, the standing ovations numerous and the air electric with anticipation as 900 people gathered April 4 to honor four couples for their dedication to children with special needs at the Friendship Circle Annual Banquet.
Friendship Circle participant turned volunteer, 13-year-old Sam Prince, opened the evening – and stole the show — by relating his own personal story as a heart recipient and how important FC is to him.

“I am so thankful for the priceless gift of life given to me, but when you think about, shouldn’t we all be thankful for the priceless gifts of life, of love, of family, of community?” Sam asked the audience. “That’s what tonight is all about! It’s about giving back. It’s about giving with your heart. Giving of your time, your energy – and yes, your money – so that children with special needs can know that they are never excluded, and they are never alone.”

He also made an impassioned pitch for LifeTown, the 47,000-square-foot, fully inclusive, educational, recreational and social center. “My dream is to see LifeTown finally be built,” he said, “so that all of the kids and teens can have even more opportunities, more magical moments, more lasting memories.”

It was a theme that was repeated by the honorees throughout the evening.  And when FC Executive Director Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum announced that the groundbreaking for LifeTown will be on June 6, the audience literally leapt to its feet in cheers.

That wasn’t the evening’s only big surprise. Grossbaum also announced a $2 million matching gift campaign thanks to the generosity of some LifeTown supporters. Grossbaum explained that if Friendship Circle raises $1 million by the day of the groundbreaking, the donors will match the pledges dollar for dollar.

That a groundbreaking date has been set was an announcement that Heidi Rome, the mother of two and a Friendship Circle parent, was praying for.

“On my way here, I said to my husband, Steve, I hope they make an announcement about LifeTown,” she said. “And when Zalman started to speak, I was so excited and so relieved, happy, delighted and thrilled.”

“It’s all good,” she said, holding back tears of joy. “It’s the manifestation of an idea, the idea of inclusion. That your child can be with the community doing things that are so transparent to other people, but are a triumph to us.”

For honorees Nancy and David Rosenfield the evening was especially meaningful as the 10th anniversary of the passing of their daughter, Allie, had been just the day before. The Rosenfields and their children, Lauren and Daniel, along with Nancy’s mom, Sheila Appel, are all dedicated FC volunteers.

“We were blessed with Allie for only eight years, but they were eight wonderful years,” said David Rosenfield. “Friendship Circle was always there help us with Allie.”

The Rosenfields shared stories about Allie and said how much it meant to them that 10 years ago the Friendship Circle summer and winter camps had been renamed in her memory.

For first-time attendee James Sozomenou the evening was simply “amazing.”

“It was unbelievable. The stories the speakers were telling are so true and genuine it almost makes you question, how you cannot be involved,” he said, adding that hearing the Rosenfields speak “was very inspiring.”

But it was the dreams of what LifeTown will accomplish that really caught the fancy of both speakers and attendees.

Robert Chefitz, who along with his wife, Laurie, were among the night’s other honorees, noted that LifeTown will be a “center of excellence” whose educational and technological advances will impact a larger community.

“I am sure you have all been familiar with a core business strategy, act local and think global,” he said, “Nothing can be more local than a one-on-one program of kids.  What might not be quite as obvious is the global impact.  The Friendship Circle and LifeTown are true centers of excellence.

“Already, universities, colleges, medical schools and healthcare systems understand what is going on here and want to participate,” Chefitz continued. “The knowledge and experience of those of you who come through [LifeTown] will carry far beyond these four walls.”

Also honored during the program were Aviva and Mickey Gottlieb, Gerald and Elizabeth Cohen along with their parents Dr. Herb and Marian Cohen. The elder Cohens were honored with a special “Champions of LifeTown Award,” in recognition of Dr. Cohen’s decades of work to identify developmental delays and disabilities in children and provide services and therapy programs for those youngsters.

In presenting the award, Rabbi Grossbaum noted that the couple is among a group of “trailblazers and giants,” upon whose shoulders LifeTown is being built.

A video recap from the recent Friendship Circle and Camp HASC joint Shabbaton, in which 50 kids from both organizations came together for an overnight Shabbat program, added a bit of amusement to the evening thanks to the breezy and comedic style of the video’s host Meir Kalmenson.

It also offered people a sense of what other kinds of programs, like overnight respite care, will be possible once LifeTown is completed.

Rutgers University student Rose Greenblatt, who is majoring in special needs related fields, was moved by the LifeTown announcement. She believes it “is necessary bridge between the professionals and the community so we can better understand the needs of the community.”

Further, she said, “LifeTown will provide social support outside of treatment offices.”

Robyn Halpern, a licensed counselor working with families with special needs members, noted that “to have a place where the special needs community can come and reach their potential is awesome. There is nothing better.”

For the record-breaking crowd the night was inspiring from the get-go as they stepped through the door and were immediately transported to a mini-spring garden complete with fresh flowers, potted trees and a waterfall. Many people decorated flower pots for Friendship Circle children. The pots will be filled with planting soil and seeds so the children can create their own “friendship” garden.

There was also a salute to those who ran the Miami Marathon in January on behalf of Friendship Circle, including Alayne Guberman, who spoke about her personal journey. Guberman had lost her son, Joshua, and husband, Ira, last year and when she heard about the marathon and realized it would fall on the anniversary of her son’s passing, she knew she had to participate.

Running in the marathon, she said, helped her understand that she “could take control of my life. After all, if I could run a marathon, I could do almost anything.”

For Michael Peters and his wife, Erin, who had not previously heard of Friendship Circle and were invited to the program by colleagues, the night was eye-opening as they discovered what a “wonderful and dedicated program it was for both the people who assist and the children who are involved,” said Michael Peters. “Particularly, the personal stories really resonated with me, being a parent of a young child. It was truly inspiring to see the dedication that the parents and people have to lending their support to the Friendship Circle and making it a successful program.”

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