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A town where ‘journey is just beginning’
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A town where ‘journey is just beginning’

Friendship Circle breaks ground for comprehensive special-needs center

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Even the smallest participants had the opportunity to mix cement for laying the cornerstone of LifeTown.
Even the smallest participants had the opportunity to mix cement for laying the cornerstone of LifeTown.

Well over 600 people came to the ground breaking for the Friendship Circle’s LifeTown in Livingston on June 6. Outside the building on Microlab Road, children, teens, and adults filled the folding chairs for the official ceremony, although the younger kids much preferred the bouncy houses, the truck they could climb on and explore, and the troughs where cement was ready for them to mix with pint-sized shovels. 

LifeTown will take shape at the site of the Friendship Circle’s current home, much expanded and enhanced. 

During construction — expected to begin this summer and take about one year — Friendship Circle will move into temporary offices elsewhere in Livingston and turn to area synagogues and organizations to host its events.

When completed, LifeTown will include recreational, therapeutic, and educational facilities for people with special needs. Its centerpiece will be Life Village, an 11,000-square-foot simulated town center that will offer clients an opportunity to practice real-world skills in a controlled environment as they visit a doctor’s office, shop in a bookstore, and go to the park, for example. 

LifeTown will also include an aquatics center with a zero-entry pool; a giant water table and water-activity room; an accessible bowling alley; a gymnasium equipped with sound-absorbent walls and ceiling, enabling individuals with sensory overload to participate in sports; a youth center with an early childhood section, a dance and music studio, and a birthday party area; and separate lounges for parents and volunteers.

Speaking at the June 6 festivities, Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, founder and director of the Friendship Circle, said, “As we break ground today, we are not creating a building, we are creating a movement, one that is steeped in history but with an eye to a bright future. It will be an incubator for our mission of ‘Love your fellow as yourself,’ creating a truly integrated world, with equal possibilities for everyone. In so many ways, the journey is just beginning.” 

He invited all the Friendship Circle clients in attendance to help “lay the cornerstone” for the new facility. Each child or teen was given the opportunity to hold a large stone selected for the occasion. Together they then “laid” it on the ground. Afterward, major funders and volunteers participated in the symbolic “ground breaking,” using ceremonial shovels and hardhats.

The Friendship Circle, begun in Livingston 16 years ago, offers activities and programs for children and teens with special needs and connects teen volunteers with children with special needs and their families to provide support, respite, and friendships. The Friendship Circle and LifeTown, projects of Chabad, were both created in West Bloomfield, Mich. — the Friendship Circle in 1994 and LifeTown in 2004. There are now 79 Friendship Circles around the world (with six in New Jersey). Replications and adaptations of LifeTown are in their infancy. One in Columbus, Ohio, was the second one built, offering only the Life Village. Livingston’s LifeTown is the third. At a total of 47,000 square feet, it is almost twice the size of the Michigan LifeTown, which has a campus of 25,000 square feet. According to Livingston Friendship Circle communications director Faygie Holt, that’s because the local need is much greater than it is in Detroit or Columbus; it is anticipated that 35,000 people, including school groups, students, families, and both teen and adult volunteers, will use the facility annually.

The Livingston center will also be equipped with technology that will enable visitors to focus on the particular skills they are learning, based on their individualized education program, as they make their way through LifeTown. 

By the time of the ground breaking, over $12 million had been raised toward LifeTown Livingston, which is expected to cost a total of $14.5 million. Planning for the project began four years ago.

Heidi Rome of Livingston said she “wouldn’t miss” the “historic” occasion. She attended the ground breaking with her husband, Steven, and their two sons, Eric, 13, and Ethan, 10. Ethan has autism and has benefited, she said, over the years from Friendship Circle programming. 

Rome said that what she loves about the LifeTown blueprint is that kids like Ethan will be able to “find what they need to learn social, academic, and life skills, all in one place.” 

But it’s the attitude of Grossbaum and his wife, Toba, that Rome most appreciates. During her first encounters with them following Ethan’s diagnosis, she met with Toba to sign him up for Friendship Circle activities. Rome recalled, “I thanked her, and said, ‘How wonderful that you’re doing this.’ And she said, ‘Oh no…, thank you. It’s our honor.’ 

“I was astounded,” said Rome, adding that that attitude was in stark contrast to what she had experienced with Ethan outside the Friendship Circle, which was “judgment. There’s running away. There’s isolation. There’s all kinds of stuff that come with special needs.” 

She concluded that her family doesn’t find “the love and acceptance [of the Friendship Circle] anywhere else.” 

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