Throngs of people came to the festivities at the LifeTown campus on Sunday, October 30, for the annual Friendship Circle walk, now a walk and run. For the first time, the walk was preceded by a 5K run that attracted 112 runners. Hundreds more participated in the annual Friendship Circle Walk, with an estimated 2,000 in attendance over the course of the day.
Those participating in the inaugural run included loyal supporters of Friendship Circle and families of participants, as well as those with no previous relationship to Friendship Circle.
Isaac Wise, 17, a Friendship Circle volunteer and a school president, loved the idea of exposing his friends to the organization through the run. “Not all my friends know about Friendship Circle,” he said. “To be on a team and run and support and learn about a good cause – that’s the best!”
Abbi Halpern, who came out for the run with her sister and was happy to take advantage of a new way to engage with a favorite cause, said, “We love to support Friendship Circle. It’s an amazing organization. Our children are volunteers, and we’ll always be here for them.”
As the top contenders crossed the finish line and accepted their medallions, homemade signs for the walk started popping up, and families gathered and greeted one another under their banners: “Rebecca’s World” or “Team Trenk.”
The music roared on, the petting zoo opened, popcorn was flowing, inflatable bouncy houses were ready to go. A festive air added to the sense of excitement and connection among the families.
Standing under a “Team Cole” sign, Clare Harelik Mevorah said, “There’s nowhere else that you can bring children with special needs and have so much programming and events and support for not only the children, but the whole family.” She’s been involved since her son Cole, now in the young adult group, started to participate in the children’s program. Besides “always doing innovative, wonderful things,” she said, “The staff is phenomenal.” But more important, she pointed to the basic philosophy of Friendship Circle: “Everybody’s always inspiring one another to be amazing.”
For Josh Stein, who has been volunteering for the organization along with his three daughters, and who helped organize the run, Friendship Circle benefits flow in all directions. “In a digital age with lots of distractions, teenage volunteers are immersed in a grounding experience and receive important life lessons that will carry forward into adulthood,” he said. “Children receiving services and support, experience the joy of being part of a community and having a social network among their peers. FCNJ is a win-win for volunteers along with participants and their families.”
While 12-year-old Thea Gardin and her father Dov ran in the 5K, her mother, Hannah Gardin came a little later with the family’s two-year-old dog, Shadow, to join the walk. A second daughter is a Friendship Circle participant. Shadow was happy to receive plenty of pets before finishing the walk, well, with a quick run to the finish. “Friendship Circle does amazing work and we want to get the word out!” said Hannah.
After the walk, longtime Friendship Circle participants Rebecca Seid and Zachary Ennis, now part of the 21 and older group, were all smiles. Rebecca loved having dogs join the group on the walk, she said. Zachary said, “I liked walking with my friends and family.”
Elit Kirschenbaum, who was getting ready for the walk with her sister, her husband, and her daughter Ivy, the youngest of four, who participates in the Friendship Circle, offered a very personal window into what makes the Friendship Circle so special. Beyond the creative programming, the staff, the volunteers and even the incredible sensory-aware LifeTown building, she described how the team lives the basic premise behind the whole enterprise: helping families of children with special needs, whatever that may mean.
Elit recalls coming to the walk shortly after her youngest was born with special needs eleven years ago. She had been invited by a friend, arrived with all four of her children, looked around at the other families, and fell into a kind of shock. “I just stood there, and I couldn’t move,” she recalled.
Although they had not met yet, Friendship Circle executive director Toba Grossbaum saw her reaction. “She immediately went and got volunteers to grab my other three children, who were eight and five and three, and take them off to the bouncy houses and the rides and everything to give me time to kind of process what was happening to my life.”
That was the beginning of the Friendship Circle’s outreach, something she needed but could not have dreamed existed. “Toba became an integral part of my life. She was the one that would come over with challahs and come over with a million types of formula when Ivy wasn’t thriving…she was the one that would call me to check in. She made sure that we were taken care of in a way that no one else knew how to take care of us.”
Elit is clear about the difficult road she and her family have traveled, and the years it took for them to feel comfortable at the walk. “What we found was that every year, we had a tremendous amount of support at the walk. And we eventually got to the point where now, coming to the walk is wonderful,” she said. “I love bringing new people to the walk because they get to experience our lives and see that even though it’s different, it’s not scary and it’s not sad. It gives them a new perspective.”
Finishing the walk, Cole Mevorah was all smiles. “How much fun did you have?” asked his mother. And his smile grew even larger as he moved his head to respond and register his joy, and the family headed off to enjoy some of the afternoon’s activities, which included, inflatables, the petting zoo, plenty of food, an arcade, face painting, music, and a show featuring acrobatics presented by Cirque-Tacular Entertainment.
Paula Gottesman, whose husband Jerry was a longtime benefactor and for whom the building is named, commented on how moving the day was. Acknowledging that this year marked her first time at the walk, she said, “I’m amazed at the number of people and I hardly know any.” Coming from a person who knows so many, it was high praise, a testament to the broad support of the Friendship Circle across such a large swath of the community.
“It was a perfect day all around, from the weather to the amazing turnout,” said Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum. “The new run added an extra excitement to what has always been a special day for the families and the entire community.” With 2,000 in attendance, the Friendship Circle walk and run is the largest event in the Greater MetroWest community. “That makes a statement about how important inclusion is and the impact we are all having,” he said.