Widening the Circle

West Bloomfield nonprofit expands its opportunities for adultswith special needs with the opening of a new café and gallery space

Everything inside The Soul Café is white: the walls, the chairs, the countertops. The blank backdrop leaves room for color to appear — and it does — on patrons and workers alike. That’s part of what Bassie Shemtov likes best about it.

“I’m in a bad mood and I’ll come here, and then I’ll forget everything,” Shemtov says.

Shemtov and her husband, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, founded the West Bloomfield-based nonprofit organization Friendship Circle together in 1994 with the goal of aiding those struggling with addiction. Three or four months in, however, the couple reached out to community leaders to find other local groups in need, and a certain demographic repeatedly emerged: children with special needs.

In an effort to help, the Shemtovs started a program called “Friends at Home,” where teen volunteers visited the homes of special needs families, providing respite in the comfort of familiar environments for a few hours at a time. Much to the Shemtov’s delight, volunteers began pouring in.

“That’s when we realized how the kids with special needs have such a positive, strong effect on our teens,” Bassie Shemtov says.

The Shemtovs have since built an array of centers and programs designed to help children with special needs through Friendship Circle. The organization opened its first facility, The Meer Center, in 2005, and added its second, The Farber Center, this spring. Adult and teen volunteers still compose the majority of the Friendship Circle community, and they, along with a handful of full-time employees, strive to help those with disabilities gain independence and confidence at both locations.

An 18,000-square-foot facility, the new Farber Center in West Bloomfield exclusively fosters adults with disabilities and is home to two new programs: the Soul Studio and Soul Café. The latter is a full-scale restaurant that employs these adults as bussers and all-around restaurant hands.

“Our families kept saying, ‘What are you doing about our adults? Our adult children are sitting around and eating and playing games.’ Not fair,” Bassie Shemtov says. “So finally we reached out to our donors and said we wanted to do the restaurant.”

The café pays its adults minimum wage in exchange for an enrollment fee to cover on-the-job training and provides a realistic milieu through which members can continue to hone professional and social dexterity. Its upscale menu offers breakfast and lunch (with vegetarian and gluten-free options) and is capped off with a café that brews Starbucks coffee and drinks.

The Farber Center is somewhat akin to Friendship Circle’s existing Meer Center, which currently serves over 2,500 special needs kids and teens from metro Detroit through after-school programs.

The Meer Center’s one-of-a-kind claim to fame, perhaps, is Weinberg Village: a sweeping, life-size cityscape replete with mock roads, traffic signals, a drug store, movie theater, doctor’s office, and more. Children are given a budget at the beginning of their visit and are taught to manage their time and resources accordingly, just as they would in life.

“They’re taking out real money, making their decisions, their choices … following the safety,” Bassie Shemtov says. “We’ll make sure that you work on yourself to act appropriately for the real world, but overall, this is your work. This is your studio.”

The Soul Café and Weinberg Village aren’t the only “studios” for participants to hone their skills. In the back of the Farber Center is the Soul Studio gallery and workspace, where adults can create, display, and sell their paintings, sketches, and 3-D art pieces. The idea isn’t so much about revenue or getting individuals out into the workforce, Bassie Shemtov says, but to produce a relaxed environment where artists are free to flourish and discover oft-unexpected talent.

“(With) autism, pressure is the last thing you want to put on a person with it,” Bassie Shemtov says. “It’s not our mission that everybody has to be out on the job. We would love it. It’s better for them, and then we can help more people and circulate. But guess what? If we’re big enough, we’ll get more property and we’ll add. If a program is good, God willing, we’ll raise enough money and we’ll grow.”

Beyond the studio, Bassie Shemtov says the Friendship Circle’s facilities in West Bloomfield have hopes of expanding further. She foresees a possible bakery, flower shop, or resale shop, but her ultimate goal in broadening Friendship Circle’s reach is to help strengthen the bond between the general public and members of the special needs community.

“As much as we do educational now, as well as social skills and all that, the root of who we are and our real, ultimate foundational goal is to have that friendship,” Bassie Shemtov says. “To get the community to open their eyes, and to really embrace it — that we need (them).”

For more information visit friendshipcircle.org