When Bassie Shemtov co-founded the Friendship Circle with her husband, Levi, in 1994, her aim was simple: to pair teenagers and special needs children, the idea being that each had much to learn from the other. Eighteen years later, Shemtov, now 40, has given rise to an international phenomenon, with 79 Friendship Circles across North America and overseas in countries such as France, Israel and Australia.
Not only has the Friendship Circle philosophy proved wildly successful, but the state-of-the-art center that Shemtov pioneered is also being replicated. The $5 million Friendship Circle flagship, in West Bloomfield, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, boasts impressive facilities, including a gym, an art space and a multisensory room with soothing fiberoptic lights and bubble tubes.
The real attraction, though, is Weinberg Village, a 5,000-square-foot working replica of a town center, complete with pavement, pedestrian crossings and a range of stores — including a bank, a movie theater, a hair salon and a library. It is here — and in replica villages in New Jersey and Ohio — that special needs children learn to navigate real-life scenarios, such as crossing the road and paying for goods and services. Schools for special needs children travel to West Bloomfield from across the Detroit metropolitan area to take advantage of such rare facilities. And, when the village is not used by children, the Shemtovs open it up to adults recovering from brain trauma to help them practice real-world skills too.