Heart & Soul




Will give art, food service experience
To students with special needs

For almst 20 years Friendship Circle of Michigan has blazed the trail for children with special needs and their families with innovative social and educational programs made possible by a dedicated core staff and a volunteer corps of more than 1,000 teens and adults.

Now the organization is embarking on a new endeavor that will provide programming and vocatioonal training for adulta with specia needs: the Farber Soul Center, an 18,000-square-foot facility that includes an art studio and gallery as well as a fully operative restaurant.

“The young children we started with in 1995 are now young adults,” said Levi Shemtov, executivedirector of Friendship Circleof Michigan. “This new phase in our history will allow us to address their growing needs.”

According to Shemtov, the facility will have two components: the Soul Studio and the Soul Cafe. The studio will provide a safe, friendly and nurturing environment where as many as 50 adults at a time can discover and cultivate their artistic talent and share their creations with the community in the Soul Gallery. Cutting-edge digital arts, such as photography, animation and 3D printing, as well as painting, ceramics, weaving, jewelry and mixed media will be represented — and art will be for sale.

The Soul Cafe will provide training and employment for adults with special needs who are interested in culinary arts and food service. Shemtov foresees it as a place where members of the community will gather to enjoy kosher food in a special environment.

“It’s a place where you bring your soul, and your soul will be touched,” he said. “It’s a natural continuation of our programming.”

The Farber Soul Center will be housed in a now-empty building located in the shopping center on the southwest corner of Drake and Walnut Lake roads in West Bloomfield. It is being designed by Neumann/Smith Architecture in Southfield, and will take approximately nine months to a year to complete, Shemtov said.

Current plans for the studio include eight separate pods where artists can experiment with computers, printmaking equipment, looms, pottery wheels and other media.

Generous Donors

The Farber Soul Center will be named for the donors whose $2.1 million matching gift is making it possible: William “Bill” and Audrey Farber of West Bloomfield. When Farber learned about the proposed project, he wanted to help it come to fruition.

“Bill feels strongly about giving back to the community; he is incredibly generous but very humble,” said his daughter-in-law Nancy Farber, who lives in Franklin with her husband, David. “He believes in transformational giving, and he could clearly see how beneficial this would be.”

One of Jewish Senior Life’s 2014 Eight Over Eighty honorees, Farber is known for his generosity to numerous local causes and organizations. He has made recent major gifts to Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills and Yeshivat Akiva in Southfield, among others.

Nancy’s husband, David, owner of Detroit Popcorn, is also a longtime Friendship Circle supporter. He said his involvement has given him an appreciation of the challenges faced by parents of children with special needs, even seemingly simple events like eating in a restaurant.

“You can’t find a better organization [than Friendship Circle] that cares more about the children,” he said.

The family is in the process of setting up the Bill and Audrey Farber Foundation, which will continue the legacy of charitable giving.

“I’m honored we can be part of this,” said David Farber. “It’s an exciting time for us and for our family.”

According to Shemtov, Friendship Circle had a fundraising goal of $4.2 million, which includes the estimated cost of the new facility and the remainder of the debt owed on the current Ferber Kaufman Lifetown Building on the Meer Family Friendship Campus in West Bloomfield. At press time, the organization was about $480,000 short of its goal, including the $2.1 million donation from the Farbers, plus gifts from other individuals and businesses, which will be named at a later date.

Growing Needs

According to Lifetown Director Bassie Shemtov, the idea for the Soul Center arose from the need to provide vocationally oriented programs for Friendship Circle’s young adult population.

“We’ve had a 112 percent growth rate over the past three years,” she said. “We can’t expand the [Lifetown] building, so we had to look at other options.”

Motivated by her belief in the power of art as a means of unleashing creativity, Shemtov began to research and visit art studio programs across the country. She was particularly impressed with Gateway Arts in Boston, Creative Studio in San Francisco and Do Art in Bay City, where artists with special needs created, displayed and sold their works.

“I always knew teens and young adults [with special needs] were amazing, but I was totally blown away by what I saw,” she said. “No one dreamt that some of these people were artistic until they were given the opportunity.”

Inspired by what she saw, Shemtov started a pilot program at Friendship Circle with 10 aspiring artists. Brian Kavanaugh, who ran a similar program in Buffalo, N.Y., and earned a master’s in fine art degree at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, served as facilitator. Kavanaugh will also be involved in the Soul Center. Shemtov refers to Kavanaugh and other staff members and volunteers as mentors or facilitators rather than teachers.

“It’s not a workshop or a class or an art therapy program,” she said. “It’s a place for encouraging creativity and empowering our adults. The facilitating artists work right alongside the artists with special needs.”

Among the young adults looking forward to the new facility is Sam Morris, 22, of West Bloomfield, who participated in the pilot art program last year.

Sam’s mother, Carolyn Morris, served as weaver-in-residence for the pilot program held in the Lifetown Building. Morris, who has an educational therapy background and is also an accomplished artist, was impressed by the talent exhibited by the participants and pleasantly surprised by the sense of community that evolved.

“It was a delight to see the connections that developed between the young artists,” she said. “They became such a close-knit group, helping each other, giving compliments and offering suggestions.”

Sam, who painted pictures inspired by the television show Wheel of Fortune, also enjoyed helping the other artists thread their looms and hang paper for painting.

“I liked meeting new people,” he said, “and I liked helping others be creative.”

Aislinn Wendrow, 21, of West Bloomfield was another budding artist who participated in the program.

“Through various opportunities for artistic expression, I’ve learned that Aislinn has a definite color palate that is her own,” said her mother, Tali Flam Wendrow. “I’m excited for the possibilities for her to be able to expand on that and to see where it takes her.”

Sam Morris also works in the Friendship Bakery, another recent vocational endeavor where participants bake challah that is sold at Hiller’s and other locations. The bakers learn skills relating to measuring ingredients and using equipment as well as kitchen safety and cleanliness, and basic business management.

The Soul Cafe will expand on this concept by giving participants the opportunity to learn the skills associated with the food service industry. Bassie Shemtov said the restaurant will start by serving breakfast and lunch, with plans to expand to dinner service as the program grows.

“You just never know what the right thing is for each person,” she said. “You can’t know unless you try.”

Bassie Shemtov said there have been discussions about some form of partnership with JVS in Southfield; government funding available for vocational training programs for individuals with special needs is also a possibility.

Legacy Of Service

The Farber Soul Center plan was announced at a recent community event honoring more than 1,000 teen and adult volunteers who help the organization carry out its mission of providing programs for people with special needs in an atmosphere of friendship, acceptance and dignity.

Levi Shemtov gave a brief history of the organization, which began in 1994 when he and his wife, Bassie, came to Detroit as emissaries of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Their original mission was to help Jewish people who need friendship because of struggles with isolation and other needs, including drugs and alcohol. This is now the Daniel B. Sobel Friendship House, adjacent to Lifetown.

After surveying the community situation, the Shemtovs realized the need for programming for children with special needs. The first programs were held at the Shemtov’s home and in various locations until 2005, when the dream of the Shemtovs and the families they served came true with the opening of the Ferber Kaufman Lifetown Building. As the organization continued to grow, the Elkus gym was added, enabling Friendship Circle to offer a variety of sports programs for participants and volunteers.

“The new facility will allow us to continue our mission to recognize, appreciate and celebrate the value of our souls,” Levi Shemtov said. ■

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