I wish to thank Rabbi Menachem Posner for providing this excellent summary of the Friendship Walk, which took place in Côte Saint-Luc last week.
Sixteen-year-old Lola Flomen spent a recent Sunday afternoon with friends at Trudeau Park in Côte St Luc. Yes, many of were high school classmates, but dozens of her playmates were children with special needs.
She was among thousands of others of others at the Walk 4 Friendship, an annual event supporting the Friendship Circle of Montreal, an organization that unites teen volunteers with special children in a friendship that Flomen describes as mutually beneficial.
Rabbi Yossi Paris, executive director of the Friendship circle says that volunteers like Flomen raised $438,656 through having people sponsor their participation in the walk. Yellow Shoes donated an additional $150,000 through a matching grant challenge.
Flomen says she and a dozen or so classmates at Lower Canada College solicited more than $1,000 mostly from family and friends.
Another volunteer, Michael Cons of Hampstead, raised $25,921 from personal friends, family and business acquaintances.
“We do it for the children,” says Cons, who attended the walk and carnival with his daughter Olivia. “Just seeing the glow on the faces of the children whose lives have been changed by the Friendship Circle makes it worth it.”
Through a wide range of programs and activities, the children with special needs and their mainstream volunteer buddies share fun and love throughout the year. The children with special needs experience the joy of friendship, and the teens are empowered through volunteering. The regular get-togethers also allow the parents to enjoy much-needed respite.
Nechama Dahan is one such parent. Her 22-year-old daughter, Bracha, who is developmentally delayed, participates in a number of Friendship Circle programs, which she says have been a lifesaver for her family.
Over the past decade Bracha has experienced a host of activities together with mainstream buddies. From “Junior Chefs,” where she purchased, cooked, and ate her own dinner, to the “Giving Circle,” where she volunteered at the Mada soup kitchen, the Friendship Circle gave her an outlet and a social circle of caring teen friends to hang out with. She also goes there for regular sessions of yoga and karate.
“Our programs not only offer a healthy social outlet for our children,” says Joshua Cummings, president of the Friendship Circle. “They also provide a setting where they can feel valued as individuals and forge lasting friendships with our young volunteers who, in turn, learn firsthand the importance and rewards of community service.”
These sentiments were echoed by 16-year-old Steven Abadi of Dollard, who volunteers regularly. “It has made me more aware of these children’s needs and made me more sensitive,” says Abadi.
Abadi first began participating in Friendship Circle events as an 8-year old, then enrolled in Summit School, which caters to children with autism, Downs Syndrome and other special needs. Over the years—in part through confidence and skills gained at Friendship Circle—he was able to transfer to Vanguard School, whose students are on par with province-wide achievement in spite of learning disabilities.
Now an aspiring singer, Abadi sang at the Sunday afternoon event. Many of the songs were from his new newly-released album that he produced with Montreal music legend Félix Gray—with all proceeds going to the Friendship Circle. The production was guided by Eli Elmaleh, who “discovered” Abadi at a Friendship Circle dinner, and sponsored by Manta Stendel.
“When the kids see Steven,” says Leibel Rodal, director of public relations at the Friendship Circle, “they see that they can do anything.”
Rodal says the walk was just two kilometres to ensure that everyone was able to participate regardless of ability. This year, there was also a five-kilometre run for those who wish to do a little more.
Dahan says she and her family came “to support Friendship Circle, and to show our appreciation for Leibel’s enthusiasm to make the world a better place for people with special needs.”