Throngs of people joined the festivities at LifeTown on Sunday, October 30, for the annual Friendship Circle walk, now a walk and run. For the first time, the walk was preceded by a 5K run that attracted 112 entrants. Hundreds more participated in the annual Friendship Circle Walk, with an estimated 2,000 in attendance over the course of the day.
Friendship Circle and LifeTown are Livingston institutions that work together to help people with special needs.
Friendship Circle provides support for children and teens with special needs and their families, as well as meaningful volunteer opportunities for teens. Friendship Circle’s distinctive approach pairs participants with teen volunteers — it “motivates, inspires and enriches everyone involved,” its executive director, Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum of Chabad of Essex County, said.
“LifeTown is a 53,000-square-foot center that is redefining the landscape for people with special needs,” he continued. “It’s aimed at everyone with special needs — children, teens, and adults; its recreational, therapeutic, and educational facilities are the first of its kind in the region.”
Its focal point is called Life Village; it’s a carefully constructed simulated Main Street that prepares participants with special needs for independent living. “Offering real-world scenarios in a safe and controlled environment, Life Village empowers each person to reach their full potential,” Rabbi Grossbaum said.
Back at the run, the horn sounded, and the runners were off.
Feet pounding, finding a rhythm, they made two giant loops, up and down gentle hills, under the canopy of trees in brilliant fall colors. Among the throng, longtime Friendship Circle supporters mixed with those drawn by the run.
The day raised both funds and awareness for Friendship Circle and LifeTown.
“Races are fun, especially with the number of people we’re going to have here today,” said Ari Wise of Livingston, a longtime Friendship Circle volunteer and a runner who helped organize the 5K. “You can always run on a Sunday morning by yourself. When you run with this kind of excitement, it makes it that much more fun.”
Some runners, like Ryan Teicher, came to support their children. A runner with marathons and half-marathons under his belt, Teicher’s son Jonah is a Friendship Circle participant.
Others came to support the organization. Robin Amster, whose grown children volunteered for Friendship Circle as teenagers, said, “My heart is still with this organization. If I’m going to be running today anyway, I might as well do it for Friendship Circle.”
Bryson and Mackenzie Fonnville of Randolph have been running 5Ks through the fall throughout the area. This week, they chose the Friendship Circle inaugural 5K because Mackenzie’s older brother has autism. “We like to run 5Ks but we also like to support amazing programs that help people,” they said. “So when I saw the opportunity to do this, I thought, this is perfect.”
Jack Thompson, a 14-year-old athlete from Morristown Beard School, came after his school suggested it. He was so excited learning about the organization that he decided on the spot to become a volunteer once the race was done.
More than a few people were running their first 5K. Susan Schaechter of Cedar Grove decided she wanted to run a 5K before her upcoming 70th birthday. Shira Stein decided to take on the run “to stand tall with volunteers and the Friendship Circle families.” She trained in the weeks leading up to the run with Friendship Circle’s founders, Rabbi Zalman and Toba Grossbaum, and Rabbi Yisroel Rosenblum, who also ran for the first time. Katelyn Wang, 11, and her brother Dennis, 14, on the other hand, saw a flyer and thought it looked like fun.
The Wangs were not the youngest in the crowd. At least one runner had not even reached double digits. Eli Sobel of Roseland, just 7 years old (“I’m almost 8!”) ran with his mother, Melissa Sobel. They have been running together through the fall and had already completed another 5K. “I’m not waiting for you this time, mom!” he warned his mother before the race started. She just laughed. They were running in memory of Eli’s grandfather, Ivan Sobel, a longtime Friendship Circle supporter.
While the runners were still on the course, homemade signs started to fill the air, and families gathered and greeted one another under their banners: “Rebecca’s World” or “Team Trenk.” The festivities created a sense of excitement and possibility. As the music blared, the petting zoo opened, popcorn was popping, and inflatable bouncy houses were ready to go.
Standing under a “Team Cole” sign, Clare Harelik Mevorah said, “There’s nowhere else that you can bring children with special needs and have so much programming and events and support for not only the children, but the whole family.” She’s been involved since her son Cole, now in the young adult group, started to participate in the children’s program. Besides “always doing innovative, wonderful things,” she said, “the staff is phenomenal.” But more important, she pointed to the basic philosophy of Friendship Circle: “Everybody’s always inspiring one another to be amazing.”
While 12-year-old Thea Gardin and her father Dov ran in the 5K, her mother, Hannah Gardin, came a little later with the family’s two-year-old dog, Shadow, to join the walk. A second daughter is a Friendship Circle participant. Shadow was happy to receive plenty of petting before finishing the walk, actually with a quick sprint to the finish. “Friendship Circle does amazing work and we want to get the word out!” Hannah said.
After the walk, longtime Friendship Circle participants Rebecca Seid and Zachary Ennis, now part of the 21 and older group, were all smiles. Rebecca loved having dogs join the group on the walk, she said. Zachary said, “I liked walking with my friends and family.”
Elit Kirschenbaum, who was getting ready for the walk with her sister, her husband, and her daughter, Ivy, the youngest of four, who participates in the Friendship Circle, offered a very personal window into what makes the organization so special. Beyond the creative programming, the staff, the volunteers and even the incredible sensory-aware LifeTown building, she described how the team lives the basic premise behind the whole enterprise: helping families of children with special needs, whatever that may mean.
Elit recalls coming to the walk shortly after her youngest child was born with special needs, 11 years ago. She had been invited by a friend, arrived with all four of her children, looked around at the other families, and fell into a kind of shock. “I just stood there, and I couldn’t move,” she recalled.
Although they had not met yet, Friendship Circle executive director Toba Grossbaum saw her reaction. “She immediately went and got volunteers to grab my other three children, who were 8 and 5 and 3, and take them off to the bouncy houses and the rides and everything, to give me time to kind of process what was happening to my life.”
That was the beginning of the Friendship Circle’s outreach, something she needed but could not have dreamed existed. “Toba became an integral part of my life. She was the one that would come over with challahs and come over with a million types of formula when Ivy wasn’t thriving. She was the one that would call me to check in. She made sure that we were taken care of in a way that no one else knew how to take care of us.”
Elit is clear about the difficult road she and her family have traveled, and the years it took for them to feel comfortable at the walk. “What we found was that every year, we had a tremendous amount of support at the walk. And we eventually got to the point where now, coming to the walk is wonderful,” she said. “I love bringing new people to the walk because they get to experience our lives and see that even though it’s different, it’s not scary and it’s not sad. It gives them a new perspective.”
Finishing the walk, Cole Mevorah was all smiles. “How much fun did you have?” asked his mother. And his smile grew even larger as he moved his head to respond and register his joy, and the family headed off to enjoy some of the afternoon’s activities, which included inflatables, the petting zoo, plenty of food, an arcade, face painting, music, and a show featuring acrobatics presented by Cirque-Tacular Entertainment.
“It was a perfect day all around, from the weather to the amazing turnout,” Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum said. “The new run added an extra excitement to what has always been a special day for the families and the entire community.
“With 2,000 in attendance, the Friendship Circle walk and run makes a statement about how important inclusion is and the impact we are all having.”