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 as a community.”

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