‘Everyone Belongs’

Friendship Circle’s annual volunteer celebration honors the achievements of people — young and old — who change lives by showing up

The beauty of finding the spark, that something special in every person, was the takeaway of this year’s annual Friendship Circle Volunteer Celebration, which was held recently at LifeTown.

Headlining the event was Pamela Rae Schuller, a comedian and performer, who has Tourette syndrome — which will cause her to bark, flap her arms and shout without warning — and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Schuller shared with the audience her journey from feeling isolated by her challenges to finding acceptance and a way to celebrate what makes her unique.

Also speaking during the FCVC event were three veteran FC teen volunteers who are graduating from high school this month. Rebecca Commer, Ethan Freed and Emma Riemer each shared their thoughts on what makes a good volunteer, what made them volunteer in the first place and what they received from being a volunteer.

“We hear that volunteering is a mitzvah, but we forget how personally satisfying volunteering is,” said Ethan, adding, “It has made me an infinitely better person.”

Rebecca explained that she learned numerous skills as a volunteer that she will always have with her, such as managing the tone of her voice, being there for others and patience.

Emma agreed that patience was a key trait she is taking from her time at Friendship Circle, adding that one of her favorite parts of volunteering was getting to know the kids and seeing how excited they are to see her.

FCVC began years ago as an evening to honor and celebrate all the teen volunteers at Friendship Circle. It has grown in recent years into a multigenerational celebration, as a growing number of adults are regularly volunteering for educational and recreational programs at LifeTown. Many of those adults were inspired by their own children, who themselves volunteered with Friendship Circle over the years.

During the event a special shout-out was given to the 31 teens and 11 adults who qualified for, and received, the Presidential Service Award for volunteerism, which is given to teens who volunteer 50 or more hours a year and adults who volunteer 100 or more hours a year.

“People ask us how do you do it? How do you get so many volunteers? What’s your secret?” said FC Jr. program director Esty Grossbaum. “But the truth is there is no secret, no smoke and mirrors. There’s just love and the recognition that everyone needs someone in their corner.”

Finding people to be in her corner wasn’t easy for Schuller, especially when she was a child.

Schuller recounted how a teacher told her mother that “kids like Pam don’t get A’s and B’s and don’t have friends,” and that her mother should “lower her expectations. Her words became my truth,” she said. But her family wasn’t willing to give up, and they sued the school district. A suit they won, which allowed a young Schuller to leave her Midwestern town and go to a private school in Vermont that welcomed all kinds of students.

Yet finding her way still wasn’t easy. “I believed I was a waste of space, and kept pushing the world away,” she said. When a teacher asked her to write a list of things that “Pammy loves about Pammy,” she couldn’t come up with a single one.

It was then the school realized they needed to take a different avenue. They started her in a therapy program and put her in a variety of different classes to see what worked. It was a “stand-up improv” class that began her journey to self-confidence and self-worth. “When you are doing stand-up, you go on stage and you have to be yourself,” Schuller said. “There’s also this idea of ‘yes, and …,’ where you have to accept whatever is going on at the moment and work with it. So if I barked or flapped my hands…” it became a part of the act. And she found the first thing she loved about herself: her humor.

When she started banging during a math class, her teacher suggested she use her rhythm to record a song about math with her classmates. “We recorded a whole album,” Schuller recounted, adding that’s the moment everything clicked.

“I stopped feeling like there are things people couldn’t do because I was around and started feeling what people could do because I was there,” she said, adding “Every single person adds something amazing to this world. I want to find things that make people shine, which is what you do in this room.”

“I have embraced what makes me, me,” she continued, “and I love Friendship Circle because it makes sure that every person belongs and each person is an important part of the community.”

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