Celebrating Miracle Workers
Back in person for the first time since 2019, 250 people attended FCVC – Friendship Circle Volunteer Celebration, held on May 25, honoring all the teen and adult volunteers. These dedicated volunteers ensured that individuals with special needs had a chance to socialize with peers and engage in enriching activities.
The evening included the presentation of the Rita and Jerry Waldor Fellowship Award, recognizing hundreds of teen volunteers who power Friendship Circle every week. The fellowship, which comes with an Israel Bond, and the annual event, was endowed this year by the Waldor family.
Zach Warter, a graduating senior at Livingston High School, kicked off the festivities. A longtime volunteer, he had a brother who was part of the Friendship Circle family and passed away unexpectedly, for whom the LifeTown football field is named. “I feel extraordinarily lucky to have grown up with you all by my side as part of my journey,” said Warter. “I may be heading off to college, but my ties this place are too strong to ever go away.”
Rabbi Levi Grossbaum, FCNJ director of operations, lauded the teens and adults for their efforts during COVID and beyond, calling them “strong, tenacious, creative and dedicated beyond the ordinary.”
Volunteers connected during COVID via Zoom and FaceTime, in backyards and in parks, and even through snail mail. The extra effort made an impact. “We’ve heard from the parents over and over again, how the bright part of their child’s day, the bright part of their week was a connection with their buddy,” said Grossbaum.
A highlight of the evening was a conversation with Michael Josephs, a bone marrow transplant recipient, and his donor, Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, CEO of Friendship Circle. The conversation revealed a series of unexpected happenings related to the transplant. “Just hold out your hand to help someone in need and G-d will do the rest,” said Grossbaum.
Allison Josephs, founder of Jew in the City, moderated the conversation. Her family has a longtime relationship with the Grossbaums, and only recently reconnected with their cousin Michael, only to find the common connection to Zalman. The discussion about seeing “a wink from G-d in our life” included a surprise reunion between Michael and Allison’s father, Dr. Allan Josephs, who had not seen each other in 50 years.
The President’s Volunteer Service Award, given by the White House to individuals who show exceptional dedication to volunteering, was presented to seven teen volunteers. Those up to age 15 must complete at least fifty hours of service, and those over 15 must complete at least 100 hours of service to earn the award. This year’s recipients are Lexi Algazy, Matthew Cohen, Harrison Handler, Eric Helwell, Jonah Ladetsky, Naomi Rosenbluth, and Rachel Yonteff.
This year, FCNJ recognized one of its extraordinary adult volunteers at the annual event. June Schechner of Short Hills, who has volunteered over 5,000 hours for Friendship Circle, received The President’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Presented to just a handful of people around the country each year who have dedicated at least 4,000 hours of service over 10 years to an organization, it marked her deep commitment to Friendship Circle. “You’ve all impacted my life so much and taught me so much,” she said. “I just want to leave you with one thought: think good and it will be good.”
Sydney Kalish, 15, and Paige Benjamin, 16, both from Livingston, two of the many volunteers who come every Sunday to LifeTown, participated in Wednesday night’s celebration. “It’s a fun opportunity to hang out with friends and give the kids a chance to hang out with us. They want to hang out with kids their age,” said Sydney. “Seeing the smiles on their faces every week makes me feel good,” said Paige. “They look up to us, and that’s sweet,” she added.
Winthor Weinstock, 17, from South Orange, was at a Giants game when he started chatting with another fan. Learning Winthor attended Columbia High School, the other fan urged Winthor to greet a particular student with a disability if they passed each other in the hallway. “I was worried because we had never talked before,” said Winthor. “But I did it and we had a nice conversation.”
That small point of contact led to a revelation and served as a catalyst for Weinstock. “It made me realize that people with challenges are not only prevented from doing physical things because of their disability, but also social things,” he said. The experience, early last fall, led him straight to Friendship Circle.
“Volunteers are the heart and soul of Friendship Circle,” said Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum. “Their dedication to programs, to the children and families, make miracles happen.”