Friendship Circle has converted nearly all of its programming into virtual experiences, including Soul Studio, its art program that supports adult artists with disabilities.
Friendship Circle in West Bloomfield, a nonprofit that offers support and programming to 3,000 individuals — primarily children and teens with special needs and their families — has been working hard to bolster its vulnerable community amid the pandemic while expanding care to new populations.
The organization has converted nearly all of its programming into virtual experiences, including Soul Studio, its art program that supports adult artists with disabilities. Sixty-six artists currently create and exhibit through the studio and gallery. In addition to supporting these artists virtually, Soul Studio is offering free weekly art classes to persons served by JARC, all who are stuck in their homes during COVID-19.
“It was very painful for us to close,” said Friendship Circle co-founder Rabbi Levi Shemtov about the decision his organization made on March 13 to temporarily shut down during the pandemic. “All the activities we do, all the programs we have, are just a setting for creating friendship. It’s the opposite of isolation. We knew we had to do whatever we could to help continue these connections.”
Friendship Circle’s virtual offerings include workshops, playdates, social circles, life lessons and more. Nearly 2,000 people, including new individuals and families, are accessing its online resources as well as its Facebook classes, says Sara Daniels, director of marketing.
Soul Studio’s virtual workshops have brought a learning curve to both staff and participants, said Anthony Marcellini, programs and exhibitions manager at the studio. Yet a variety of experiences, from one-on-one meetings to small group workshops, have evolved, he said.
Amid isolation, Shemtov prompted staff to bring the joy of art to others in the Jewish community. In addition to his executive role at Friendship Circle, he serves as a board member to JARC, a Farmington-based nonprofit providing residential and support services for people with developmental disabilities.
“I believe that JARC is really on the front line of this,” Shemtov said. “Residents usually get out during the day to different activities or to employment. They [normally] have a lot of socialization and now they’re just shut down.”
Before the pandemic, individuals served at the nonprofit’s residential group homes eagerly awaited weekend visits with family and friends, said Jessica Tierney, JARC’s community engagement manager. They relied on the consistency of vocational programs, employment and the encouragement and support given by a variety of volunteers. This has dissipated during shelter- in-place when JARC homes are restricted to essential staff.
Keeping people they served mentally and physically active, Tierney says, is her top priority right now. When invited, 14 JARC homes totaling 39 participants signed up for weekly art classes, including all those living in JARC’s deaf homes.
“We have an interpreter to help with instruction,” said Tierney. “You can tell how eager and excited people are. I think it’s not only good for our persons served, but I think it’s been a great experience for Soul Studio, too.”
Forty tablets were donated to Friendship Circle by Jay Feldman from Feldman Automotive and Mark Wahlberg to help in this endeavor, Daniels said. Many JARC residents don’t have computers or phones, so this increased access to the free instruction.
Classes with JARC, which began April 14, are divided between eight groups, four on Tuesdays and four on Thursdays. They run 45 minutes. Art projects have included drawing, collage and will soon be moving into painting. Marcellini says he and facilitating artists Nick Kramer and Vickie Shaheen are experiencing joy and enthusiasm right along with JARC participants.
He describes how the four women living at Samuels Home in Beverly Hills are always excited for class and willing to try anything. “Their shyness, and maybe their fears about their own artistic ability, has fallen away,” he says. “They’re getting much more creative and expressive. It’s really great to see.”
Nancy Alpert, age 58, lives at Samuels Home. She looks forward to art class each week, especially since she hasn’t been able to attend her regular day program at Judson Center, an organization in Oakland County helping individuals with special needs build skills and prepare for employment.
Art classes are new to Alpert’s routine but, she says, Soul Studio instructor Nick Kramer is a good teacher who’s “patient” and “nice” to students. Creating collage art has been her favorite project so far, and she’s excited by the prospect of painting.
Tierney, who attends each virtual class, says it’s a lot of fun to see how participants are coming out of their shells and taking in art differently than they may have before. Part of that comes from learning to embrace their individuality and unique approaches to the projects, she said.
Each home’s direct support staff also play a role in helping classes go well, Marcellini points out. When projects are a success, it’s because that staff has made sure the right materials are there and is supporting each participant in a hands-on way.
“Some of the support staff are deaf themselves, but they all sign,” he explains. “They’re interpreting what’s going on to their participants, sometimes from Abigail, who’s the deaf interpreter. It’s a complex and fascinating process to be a part of… We’re learning a lot.”
Virtual classes don’t replace the studio experience, Marcellini adds, but it may groom new artists. “When this is all over, there may be people who are excited to come to the studio who wouldn’t have come before.”
For the future of Friendship Circle and those they support, Marcellini and Shemtov agree that some continuation of online programing will likely continue long term. Even after life settles down, virtual classes will offer a way for Friendship Circle to access communities who they aren’t normally able to reach.