Friendship Circle’s Weinberg Village teaches kids with special needs critical skills in a safe environment.

Sponsored by Friendship Circle

Photography by Brett Mountain

Imagine a place where children of all abilities and backgrounds could learn essential life skills in a safe and accepting environment. Imagine if that place was developed with experts to help children with special needs feel safe venturing into new experiences. Now imagine all these experiences and life lessons were happening in a state-of-the-art facility designed as a “mini-town” to mirror the real world.

In 2005, Friendship Circle opened the doors to Weinberg Village in the Ferber Kaufman Lifetown Facility on the Meer Family Friendship Center. Weinberg Village brought to life the vision of Bassie and Rabbi Levi Shemtov: to see children with special needs safely navigating the skills essential to succeed in life. Research continues to prove that students have a higher rate of success in comprehension skills when taught in a true-to-life setting. Weinberg Village is that setting.

Each year, Lessons for Life serves more than 2,500 students from across Michigan and the region.

Weinberg Village is now home to Lessons for Life, Pathways and Lessons for Life 2.0, ground-breaking life skills programs that simulate a day in the “real world”’ for children ages pre-K through high school.

“When we developed Lessons for Life and Weinberg Village, we gathered a professional committee of therapists, social workers and educators who worked together weekly on planning the center,” Bassie says.

The Lessons for Life curriculum was developed in partnership with Nancy Sinelli and Lori Blumenstein of the human services agency MORC, and is now overseen by Director Shelby Lonnerstater, LLMSW.

“Each aspect of the building is designed around the requests of the hundreds of families Friendship Circle was serving,” Levi continues. “We knew we needed to serve the children we had met and the thousands who needed these skills in a tangible and safe way. Offering a program that could work with the schools was the only way to reach all students.”

Now in its 15th school year, Lessons for Life bridges the gap between the skills students with special needs are learning in the classroom and a real-world setting. Every day, Weinberg Village becomes a fully functioning town run by Friendship Circle volunteers for hundreds of students. Each year, Lessons for Life serves more than 2,500 students from across Michigan and the region.

And, Lessons for Life isn’t just for students with special needs. The program is for everyone.

“While all of our other programs are open to and enjoyed by people of all faiths, Lessons for Life, because of the geographic area that the students come from, helps us bring our friendship to thousands of students, which represents the full diversity of southeast Michigan.”

Through Pathways, Friendship Circle is now working with more than 100 schools to bring students with and without special needs to Weinberg Village for field trips and other learning experience visits. Learning alongside each other, students can see what life may be like for those with different abilities.

“Lessons for Life began to help teach students with special needs about the real world,” Lonnerstater says. “Pathways allows schools to bring students of all abilities to Weinberg Village together, so they have the chance to work together, live together and do life together.”

Working in collaboration with Lessons for Life and Pathways, Lessons for Life 2.0 offers individualized plans for students with special needs. Educators work directly with Friendship Circle professionals to identify specific goals for a student and help to guide that student during a visit to Weinberg Village.

“We are able to see the success students have when they come through Lessons for Life a few times and are truly learning how to navigate town,” Lonnerstater says. “Our volunteers get to know them. They learn and try new things each time they come. Most importantly, they are feeling confident and more ready to try these things in the real world.”

Lessons for Life has become a critical extension of the work done at Friendship Circle. Offering a space for schools to give real-world experience to students, a curriculum designed to expand students’ abilities and caring individuals dedicated to volunteering their time to help these students succeed in safe and fulfilling ways.

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Read more: Nicole Kahan: How Friendship Circle is Changing Teens’ Lives

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