One of the victims of October’s surprise snowstorm was the fifth annual Friendship Circle Walk, originally slated for Oct. 30. Rescheduling the event to Nov. 13 seemed to have little impact on the outcome: A record number of participants — more than 1,500 men, women, and children — came to the Kushner campus in Livingston and raised $160,093, according to Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, founder and executive director of the Livingston-based Friendship Circle, which pairs teenage volunteers with children with special needs.
Although the rescheduling did create a lot of added work for organizers, it was worth it, said Grossbaum, because it also led to a triumphant milestone for one young participant that dramatically reflected this year’s theme, “Givin’ It Heart and Sole.”
When eight-year-old Sam Prince of North Caldwell had heard that the walk was set for Oct. 30, he was, said his mother, Debbie Prince, “devastated”; his family had a conflict that would prevent him from taking part for the first time in four years.
So when the new date was announced, he knew he would be there and ready — and with a surprise.
Sam was born with multiple congenital heart defects that had always prevented him from enjoying some of the basic pleasures of childhood. He couldn’t ride a bike, run around the playground, or attend friends’ birthday parties.
He and his family — which includes father Mitch and brother Max, 12 — received some welcome help after the Friendship Circle entered his life when he was just three years old. His mother said the organization and its team of teen volunteers “have been there through every milestone. They brought over a ‘birthday in a box’ when Sam was too sick to have a party and delivered hot meals to him when he was in the hospital.” For three years, he has also received home visits from Ariel Artz and Arianna Robbins, both 15, who play games with Sam and simply “hang out” and talk. “The teens make him laugh,” said Prince. “They just love to laugh together.”
So it was as an expression of gratitude that Sam has done the Friendship Circle Walk for the past three years, with his mother pushing him in a stroller along the route and across the finish line.
Sam’s condition was steadily deteriorating until last March 14, when he received a life-saving heart transplant at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital at New York-Presbyterian. The surgery has meant that Sam can now attend second grade full time at Grandview School in North Caldwell.
When he arrived at the Friendship Circle Walk, Sam did what he always does — he took part in pre-walk activities, painting his team’s name, “Sam’s Friends,” on the red heart-shaped balloons given to all the participants.
But then Sam did something he had never done before — he completed the walk on foot.
The achievement, said his mother, was especially significant given this year’s theme and that “completing the walk was Sam’s post-transplant goal.”
For Grossbaum, Sam’s finish-line crossing best exemplifies the Friendship Circle’s mission. It’s about “the strength of each child, the challenges they overcome, and the magic that happens when a community comes together to support each other,” he said.
“I watched Sam’s face as he crossed the finish line, and you just knew this kid didn’t just walk the one mile; he ran the marathon of his life and won.”
Prince said the Friendship Circle has always been there for Sam, both before and after his transplant. She also credits the “enormous” support the family receives from their synagogue, Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell — including visits from teenage members.
Debbie Prince said something happened during the walk that served as a reminder that Sam received the ultimate gift that allowed him to achieve his victory.
“As we started the actual walk, the balloon slipped from Sam’s fingers,” Prince said. “I watched the red heart float into the sky and I knew exactly where it was going. It was going to that donor child who gave Sam his life. That child was with us that day.”