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Friendship Circle Banquet Offers Glimpse of the Future

More than 750 people gathered to show their support for families who have children and teens with special needs and to celebrate the honorees at the Friendship Circle Annual Banquet.

The March 29 event was held at the future home of LifeTown in Livingston. A one-of-a-kind, fully accessible and integrated center, LifeTown will provide social, recreational and educational programming for the community at large and people with special needs.

The evening’s honorees included U.S. Senator Cory Booker; Patricia and Kevin Cummings, President & CEO of Investors Bank; Ilene and Lance Blake, President of Rotwein+Blake; Arlene and Michael Gordon, Partner at Gordon & Gordon Attorneys at Law; and Mara and Steven Simon, President of Consolidated Service Distributors.

In his remarks, Sen. Booker praised the work of the Friendship Circle and everyone involved with the organization.

“You see the truth, the dignity and the worth of every child,” the senator said. “That every child should be celebrated and elevated because you see someone created in God’s image. To me, that is miraculous.”

The Friendship Circle, Booker continued, “is a light to this nation of what we should do for every child. What Friendship Circle is pulling together with LifeTown is carrying out this rich tradition of elevating life, of celebrating it, of leaving no child behind. Yasher koach, continued strength, in what you are doing.”

For those in attendance, the evening offered the most comprehensive glimpse at what the future will hold once LifeTown is completed.

Through inspiring videos and speeches, the stage was set for how LifeTown will be utilized by the community at large thanks to a myriad of after-school programs, volunteer opportunities and classes.

Adding to the understanding of what the building will truly be like was the “LifeTown Virtual Tour,” in which people donned a Samsung Gear VR headset and proceeded to “wander” around LifeTown using the latest in virtual reality technology.

“These kids are really special and their parents are special,” said banquet attendee Sylvia Stark. “LifeTown is so needed in our community and will reach the entire community and provide something for everyone.”

Stephen Fauer was also touched not just by what he saw throughout the evening, but by the potential LifeTown will have to impact many lives.

“I have a cousin who has Asperger’s and had he had a program like this when he was younger, his life today would be dramatically different,” said Fauer of his cousin who is now in his mid-60s.

Also impressed by what he saw and heard was former New York Knicks star Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. The basketball legend spent part of the evening talking with Friendship Circle families and teens, learning how the organization seeks to improve the lives of participants and volunteers.

“Lots of things happen in life and thank G-d there are organizations like this that can help us along the way,” said Monroe.

Everywhere one looked throughout the evening, the strength and abilities of individuals with special needs was on display. Several Friendship Circle teens helped open the formal part of the program by participating in a musical performance by a group of FC teen volunteers.

One of the evening’s most moving moments was a video about Friendship Circle volunteer Keren. As the first teen volunteer when Friendship Circle began 15 years ago, Keren had spent her free time befriending a child with special needs. As a high school senior, a car accident left her severely injured and in a coma for a year.

Today, Keren continues to volunteer with the Friendship Circle and participates in Friendship Circle programming. LifeTown, she said in the video, “is her dream.”

But to have that dream come true will take the community’s involvement, said several speakers throughout the night.

Noting that nearly $7.5 million has been raised to date for the construction of LifeTown, Friendship Circle Executive Director Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum told the crowd that they needed to reach $10 million before the work can actually begin. The project is expected to cost $13.5 million, a relatively low sum considering the size and scope of the project, but an amount made possible because of many in-kind donations.

Leslie Williams-Wexler, an occupational therapist, and her husband Steve Wexler came to show their support for the Cummings and called LifeTown “fabulous.”

“What you are doing here,” she said, “is beyond comprehension.”

By Faygie Levy

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