Doonie Mishulovin M.A. Ed.
Nearly 350 guests attended the Friendship Circle of Los Angeles’s Garden Party on Tuesday, May 24th, at the lovely gardens of the Nissel family in Beverly Hills. The night honored 481 volunteers and culminated in an inspirational ceremony celebrating a year of inclusion and community service.
Guests entered a “Garden of Eden” as they enjoyed a delicious dinner from “Let’s Have a Cart Party,” with tasty entrees, hot pretzels, fancy sweets, and much more. Guests took many photos at the “step and repeat” banner, and volunteers were filled with excitement as each of them received a new Friendship Circle baseball cap. Volunteers also enjoyed taking photos in the Instagram booth.
Rebecca Kianmahd, a senior at Milken Community High School who will be entering UCLA in the fall, received the Heart and Soul Award for nine years of exceptional volunteering. In an eloquent speech, Rebecca shared how she began volunteering in fourth grade, when she insisted on joining her older sister at Friendship Circle. Through building a close friendship with first Sharon and then Stella, Rebecca realized that these special children “have the most radiant of smiles, biggest of hearts, most contagious laughter, and purest of souls.” She plans on spreading this inclusive message as a Bruin and becoming a pediatrician who has the sensitivity to care for this population.
Yaakov Sobel, an eleventh grader at Shalhevet High School, was introduced by our behaviorist Julius English, who shared a fiery Torah thought. Yaakov gave a stirring speech as the recipient of the Hineini Award. The Hineini Award is given to an outstanding volunteer who steps up to assist Friendship Circle in multiple programs and roles; a volunteer who can consistently be counted on to help with enthusiasm and expertise. He shared his struggles as a child with ADHD, dysgraphia, and dyslexia, and how at the age of 14, he began to give back to the community. He spoke of his best friend, Abie, who has autism, and who joined him on stage in an open and exuberant show of friendship. His message was that we are all perfect; it is society that is imperfect, and we can change society.
The Family of Friendship Award was given to honor the Schuraytz family who have made Sunday mornings at the Friendship Circle Hebrew School a priority, despite the distance from the Valley. This family has been volunteering regularly at Friendship Circle for the past nine years! Ben, Debbie, and their three daughters – Racheli, Chana Leah, and Sarah Bracha – are always there for our special children. They have volunteered at an array of programs with commitment and love.
Actors Steven Clark and Christina Sanz of the reality show “Born This Way” wowed the audience with their professional, yet warm, moving, and entertaining speeches. Steven spoke about how his parents have always helped him meet his dreams and taught him to believe in himself. Regarding his life goals he declared, “I’m working on these goals – it might take me awhile, but I’m confident I’ll get there.” Christina shared her story of success, including her engagement to fiancé Angel. Both of these young adults with Down Syndrome are breaking barriers and stereotypes with their hard work and success.
Guests enjoyed a presentation where 38 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 Beth Freishtat, Director of Jewish Education and Engagement Partnerships, and Miriam Maya, Director of Caring for Jews in Need, both of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
The video, “I Can Be,” featuring highlights of the year and children achieving their goals, captured precious moments of friendship with footage at Friendship Circle.
Miriam Rav-Noy, Program Director of the Friendship Circle, concluded the evening with a message dedicated to the volunteers about the foundation of the Friendship Circle. “The Lubavitcher Rebbe, the inspiration behind Friendship Circle, taught a deep lesson based on the verse ‘love our fellow as you love yourself.’ Just as we have a personal and unique approach to loving ourselves, we should demonstrate similar love and understanding toward others; surely including those with special needs.”
Miriam concluded by sharing the impact this love and understanding is having on the community. Over the course of this past year, 10 local Jewish day schools, temples, and youth groups have contacted FCLA to run inclusion programs and workshops with their students!
Finally, Miriam saluted the graduating seniors and presented each with a plush blanket, embroidered with the Friendship Circle logo, reminding them that the warmth of friendship will carry on!
On the way out, beautifully packaged, homemade cookies with the message, “Volunteering is Sweet,” were set out for guests to enjoy. Everyone left feeling inspired and excited to continue making a difference in the lives of all our very special children.