Before a gala crowd estimated at 900, Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum announced on April 4 that the Friendship Circle organization that he and his wife, Toba, lead will begin construction in June on its new LifeTown center in Livingston.
Friendship Circle, the Chabad Lubavitch-affiliated organization that recruits teenage volunteers to spend time assisting children with disabilities, has already raised $9.4 million toward the project goal of $14.5 million. The ground breaking is possible thanks to 850 donors, the rabbi said, as well as another $1 million in a matching challenge grant that has just been pledged by two local benefactor families.
“We will break ground on 6/6/16,” Grossbaum said, speaking at the Friendship Circle’s annual banquet, held in its cavernous facility off Route 10 in Livingston. He called on the community to keep up the flow of contributions. “It would be infinitely better if this center can be built without a mortgage,” so all future funds can be applied to running the facility and its programs.
LifeTown is envisaged as a multi-faceted center where clients can learn life skills in a safe but challenging environment. In addition to therapy and health facilities and an aquatics center, it will be home to Life Village, a “town” with stores and businesses, where young adults will be able to learn life skills with the help of volunteers and professionals.
The local Friendship Circle, part of a worldwide network of such organizations, brings in about 850 teen volunteers a year to help around 315 families. With the new center, they plan to extend their impact much further. Grossbaum said, “The building will touch 35,000 lives a year.”
The evening’s program began with a speech by 13-year-old Sam Prince, the son of Debbie and Mitchel Prince of North Caldwell. Sam, who was the recipient of a donor heart, spoke of forging ahead in life with “our heart,” his gratitude to the Friendship Circle kids who provided him with encouragement and company, and his own decision to become a volunteer with the organization.
Like a seasoned fund-raiser, he challenged the audience, saying, “Tonight is all about giving back, with your heart, your time, and your money. Can I count on all of you to make it possible to get LifeTown built?”
Speaking after him, Rabbi Moshe Herson, dean of the Rabbinical College of America, with which this Friendship Circle branch is affiliated, brought that message home. He said, “There is not one person in this room who is not in the category of special needs,” and pointed out that everyone has experienced times of being overwhelmed by the challenges facing them.
Four couples — all people who have supported the organization both with their time and their money, and some of whom have first-hand experience with its services — were honored at the event. They are Laurie and Robert Chefitz, Avivah and Michael Gottlieb, Nancy and David Rosenfield, and Elizabeth and Gerald Cohen. Gerald’s mother, Marian, was also honored along with his father, Dr. Herb Cohen, a pioneer in the field of working with individuals with developmental disabilities.
Dr. Cohen led the national panel that developed guidelines for inclusionary child care, served as chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Children with Disabilities, and was the vice chair of the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation.
Urging everyone to get involved, Michael Gottlieb described the LifeTown center as a 47,000-foot “mitzva factory,” filled with opportunities to do good.
Grossbaum, referring to him and all the people who have championed the Friendship Circle cause, said of the project, “We are building on the shoulders of giants.”