by Alisa Roberts.
Friendship Circle of Los Angeles celebrated the opening of their new My Backyard playground in style. Why such celebration? Because this is no ordinary playground. “There are a few special needs playgrounds in LA, but this playground is unique in the fact that it is geared to kids with special needs and to their typical peers,” explains Chana Fogelman, PR Manager for Friendship Circle of Los Angeles. “Our equipment enables a child who is wheelchair-bound to play next to a typical peer. We’ve built it with equipment that’s suitable for all levels of physical ability so that everyone can benefit and enjoy it at the same time. We want our playground to be a paragon for inclusion.”
The day began with a lunch catered by Abba’s, followed by a program of speakers and entertainment, and finishing with the ribbon cutting – and play time! Speakers of the day included Councilman Paul Koretz, Candidate for Supervisor Bobby Shriver, teen volunteer Rebecca Elspas, Friendship Circle participant Shayna, parent Sashi Well, Executive Director Rabbi Michy Rav-Noy, and Scott Minkow, representing the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and RPO (Real Estate Principals Organization).The Cheder Menachem Boys Choir, with help from the Friendship Circle children, closed by performing several beautiful songs.
Everyone then moved outside for the ribbon cutting ceremony. Rabbi Rav-Noy invited those who made the My Backyard project a reality to participate. David Johnson from CO Architects, Bruce Sobol from Brentwood Electrical, Scott Minkow, Rodney Freeman, and John Monkarsh from RPO were joined by Theresa De Vera, Councilman Koetz, Bobby Shriver and Dr. Zev Rav-Noy. Ms. De Vera, a commissioner on the LA Commission on Disability as well as Ms. Wheelchair California 2014, explained, “It’s so humbling that individuals and organizations like The Friendship Circle remember that all a person with a disability wants is to lead a normal life, like any able-bodied person, where children don’t see the disability but the individual’s ability…this will open so many doors to inclusion, education and acceptance.” After a shehechiyanu, the ribbon was cut, and volunteers in blue Friendship Circle shirts and kids of all ages flooded the new playground.
Rabbi Michy Rav-Noy described what the opening meant to him, “It means that miracles come true. We’re not here to fill a quota. We’re here to help the community with what it needs, and G-d helps. So what this means to me is that G-d was smiling. It was meant to be!”
It’s been a long time coming and the journey began years ago.
“A few years ago we closed escrow on our building,” says Rabbi Michy. “I sent an email saying, ‘Mazal Tov, we have a new building!’ In response, a few guys involved at the Jewish Federation said, ‘We have an RPO which provides direct support to non-profit organizations to enhance communal infrastructure. Please submit a proposal ASAP!’ I did, and they helped us get an $80,000 grant to jump-start the playground.” But the help didn’t end there. Because the group is made up of real estate developers, part of the assistance that was offered came in the form of expertise. “Rodney Freeman connected us with an architect who designed everything pro bono. He was an angel – his name is David Johnson. It’s more than just the money. I don’t even know what was more helpful, the $80,000, or the constant help with negotiating, advice, contracts, etc.”
As helpful as the Federation was, even that was not enough to get this ambitious project to completion. “To put together a yard like this you have to have donors,” explains Gail Rollman, Development Director for Friendship Circle LA. “Fundraising comes under my portfolio. It started over a year ago with getting seed money from RPO which is under the umbrella of the Jewish Federation. Additionally, we sought out many individual donors.” But it was worth the effort.
“Today is truly the day where our dream has become a reality,” says Rollman. “It’s seeing the project come to fruition – it’s a day of celebration! And it’s also a day to recognize the donors. One of the most exciting parts of today was taking the donors on a tour of our yard. I was able to say to the couple who had donated funds for the Tree of Friendship, ‘Come sit under your tree!’ Another donor was thrilled with how quickly our project had become a reality. I love that they have the opportunity to see the kids play on their equipment. When donors can come and see the joy on everyone’s faces, it makes it more meaningful. For the Friendship Circle staff, seeing how much happiness My Backyard is bringing to the community makes our hard work all worth it.”
Hard work is no overstatement. The project took several years and tremendous effort from many people. The playground that existed before was totally inappropriate for the children of Friendship Circle, and because it was laid in concrete, the demolition alone took several weeks. Then there was the planning. “We looked at many, many catalogs of playground equipment, carefully selecting pieces that can enhance a child’s growth and development,” explained Rabbi Michy.
Safety was also a major consideration. “We stand out because this playground is safe and secure,” explains Rollman. “You can go to another playground, but with a child who is a mover it can be exhausting. Here the parents can sit down and enjoy watching their children play, knowing that they don’t have to worry.” Inclusion was the primary goal. “They don’t want to be stared at, or looked at differently,” says Rollman. “We value inclusion. It’s very welcoming here. Even our jungle gym has multiple slides for two people so the volunteer and the child can use them together. It makes them feel included, not, ‘You go, I’ll watch you,’ but ‘We’re doing this together.’ It’s a relationship-building opportunity.” Rabbi Michy is particularly proud of one piece of equipment: the Integration Carousel. The Carousel, designed for use by children in wheelchairs along with other children, allows for two wheelchairs and six other passengers. The wheelchair spots are circled by a bar; when you lift the bar the brake activates, allowing the child in the wheelchair to get on board. Then the bar lowers and around they go. “The Integration Carousel is the only one in California,” says Rabbi Michy. “It’s a big deal. It’s a very expensive piece, but the kids were out there having a blast.”
They really were. It was a bright hot day on Sunday, but that didn’t stop the kids from racing around, pulling volunteers after them eagerly. Cameron, a 15-year-old volunteer who became involved with Friendship Circle this year, paused long enough to tell me what she thought of the playground. “I think it’s really fun and good for all the kids.” Rivki Mark, grandmother of special needs child Yonatan, couldn’t agree more. “I think the park opening is incredible. It gave me goose bumps,” she says. She extends that same enthusiasm to the entire organization: “Friendship Circle is amazing. It’s really a godsend for parents and grandparents of special needs kids to know that their kids are so well-loved and included in our community. The volunteers are the most incredible young people you could ever have the merit to meet.”
The volunteers are a vital part of the programs. “Friendship Circle is a hybrid organization,” explains Rabbi Michy. “We help Jewish children with special needs, with the assistance of hundreds of Jewish teens that volunteer with us from 58 different schools in LA. These teens are learning how to be involved in the Jewish community and we give them the opportunity through selfless giving.”
But it’s the kids who love it the most. Mrs. Gabaie, parent of a participant, describes her young daughter’s feelings: “She loves coming here. Sometimes we come home and she says, ‘OK, tomorrow we have Friendship Circle.’ I say, ‘No, tomorrow is school.’ And she says, ‘No, I want Friendship Circle.’” It’s a favorite activity for Rafi as well. When asked what he likes about Friendship Circle he has a whole list, but these are his favorites: “I like Sky High [a field trip from winter camp], and the moonbounce.” His mother, Mitra Dayan, explains that he loves the program so much they use it as an incentive. “Friendship Circle is a reward for him,” she says. “He’ll do anything for that.” Part of the reason the kids love it so much is that they feel at home here. “One of the things we love about having our building is that the kids feel ownership here, unlike many other places,” says Rollman. “From looking at their pictures on the wall to saying ‘That’s my piece of art; it’s theirs!” The hope is that the playground will add to this feeling.
“Everything we create here is relationship building,” says Fogelman. “That’s the core of the Friendship Circle. It’s for friends to play together, volunteers to enjoy time with their buddy, and another place for kids with special needs in LA to enjoy time with Jewish friends.”
Friendship Circle Los Angeles was established in 2003. Friendship Circle is part of the Chabad network, and there are currently 80 Friendship Circles all over the world.