Friendship Circle Garden Party

By

Berenice Famili

Over 400 guests attended Friendship Circle of Los Angeles’ (FCLA) Garden Party on May 13th at Nessah Synagogue, honoring 370 volunteers. Guests enjoyed a cocktail hour that included a sushi buffet and decadent dessert bar followed by an inspirational ceremony celebrating a new year of inclusion and giving back.

Volunteers from 71 schools across Los Angeles dedicate their time to their buddies with special needs through Friendship Circle’s 18 programs. Volunteers attend workshops, an orientation and receive ongoing support from the Friendship Circle, building strong relationships with their buddies and creating lasting friendships. This year was especially exciting with the introduction of the Let’s Play inclusion program.

Beth Freishtat, Program Officer, Jewish Education and Engagement at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, presented FCLA’s executive director, Rabbi Michy Rav-Noy a grant of $35,000 to the Friendship Circle Volunteer Club. Beth remarked that this was, “to support their work providing Jewish teens with a valuable experience of Judaism-in-action as they help members of the special needs community.”

“Our volunteers are compassionate, productive and giving members of the Jewish community,” said Chana Fogelman of the Friendship Circle. “This evening is a salute to them, the friendships they have built and the good they have accomplished.”

Julius, FCLA's behavioral therapist with Steven Birnbaum, FC young adult and Levi Isaac, FC volunteer and recipient of the Henini Award. Shimi Lautman Photography

Julius, FCLA’s behavioral therapist with Steven Birnbaum, FC young adult and Levi Isaac, FC volunteer and recipient of the Henini Award. Shimi Lautman Photography

Valerie Lopez, a senior at Renaissance Arts Academy, was awarded The Spirit of Friendship Award for her five-year devotion and commitment to the organization and her buddy, Wendy. In her acceptance speech, she explained, “Not only have I learned patience and perseverance with these amazing children, but I have also learned the story of Passover and the traditions of Shabbat.” Specifically, Valerie says that her flourishing friendship with Wendy inspired her to advocate for the special needs community and also developed her desire to live a Jewish life as she plans to undergo a conversion at the appropriate time.

Levi Issac, who will be joining the IDF in the fall, was awarded the Hineni Award for his relentless determination and pioneering success in learning how to effectively work with the kids at Friendship Circle. During his acceptance speech, Isaac shared two of the biggest lessons he has learned from his work with kids like Steven and Abie. Firstly, “everyone has abilities, some of us express them in different ways.” Secondly, “the only disability in life is the inability to recognize other people’s capabilities.” He further expressed how Friendship Circle has enabled him to find more meaning and purpose in his life, while opening his eyes to the importance of giving back to the community.

Keynote speaker Tikvah Juni, a renowned inclusion advocate, gave an incredibly moving speech about her personal challenges and triumphs of living life with Down syndrome. She said, “I am sharing my life story with you because I hope that my experience will motivate you to make the rest of the world a more welcoming place.” She concluded with a poignant message asking for the end of prejudice and fear. She recognized the importance of creating a more inclusive community.

Guests also enjoyed a spirited Fellowship Award Ceremony where 39 students received the prestigious Fellowship Award for their extraordinary commitment to volunteering and enhancing their knowledge in the field of special education. Awards were presented by David Suissa, President of Tribe Media Corp/Jewish Journal and Miriam Maya, Director of Caring for Jews in Need, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Another highlight of the evening was a video profiling volunteers and the impact Friendship Circle has had on their High School years titled, “Friendship Comes Full Circle.”

Miriam Rav-Noy, Program Director of the Friendship Circle, concluded the evening with a message dedicated to the volunteers and staff. “All you give to Friendship Circle is seen in the joy of our children’s faces. Thank you for your dedication and commitment and working everyday to ensure a more inclusive world for our kids.”