Friendship Circle of Miami has been a beacon of hope for children and young adults with special needs. The organization, under the direction of Rabbi Yossi Harlig and his wife, Nechama Harlig, has been helping young people forge remarkable friendships for the past 15 years.
Friendship Circle is known for its consistency and dedication to the people they serve. What starts out to be a friendship, where a teen volunteer spends quality time with a young person with autism, Down syndrome or cerebral palsy, becomes a deeply rooted friendship that lasts a lifetime.
Then one day, out of the blue, the coronavirus reared its ugly head and life for the Friendship Circle was impacted at every level. Like most not-for-profits they were worried about the future. What’s going to happen to our clients, our staff? Our donors? How will we survive?
Today, looking back on the past four months, the answer is Friendship Circle has responded to the challenges of COVID-19, adapting and innovating itself to thrive in the new “normal”.
What has been especially remarkable is that the Harligs and their team were not going to let a pandemic get in the way or even stop the organization. This was particularly evident in May. One of the greatest accomplishments this year was their 11th Annual Walking 4 Friendship 3K.
“How in the world can we hold a walk with thousands of people participating when no one is allowed outside,” Nechama Harlig wondered.
The answer was simple. “We will hold a virtual walk where people can participate from the comfort of their home, backyard or neighborhood. There is a first for everything,” Nechama says.
What was truly incredible was that there wasn’t any precedent for holding a virtual walk, yet, the Friendship Circle handled it masterfully. “We wondered if there would be interest let alone enthusiasm. What was so remarkable is that everybody was on board,” she added.
The historic walk had 1000 pre-registered participants and expanded beyond Florida’s borders and included participants from Texas, New York, Massachusetts, Georgia and Michigan.
Clay Ferraro, Local Ten’s sports anchor, helped to get the virtual participants energized and stay motivated throughout the day. As a result, Walking 4 Friendship raised a staggering $183,000 and exceeded everyone’s goals.
“We are extremely grateful for how the community united to support this event and show our special needs community they have not been forgotten,” said Russell Eckert, Chief Development Officer, Friendship Circle. “The funds raised will support Friendship Circle’s many programs as well as our future home, The Friendship Campus, scheduled to break ground in early 2021,”
Vision for the Future – The Friendship Campus
In 2016, after over a decade of program and facility planning, zoning was secured for a new facility to house Friendship Circle’s 21 activities and programs. “The new campus will offer 20,000 square-feet of space and will serve as an activity center, social meeting place and a hub for families, individuals with special needs, volunteers, professional staff and supporters,” Eckert explained. “More space also means the opportunity to offer a wider range of programs and activities.”
As the threat of COVID-19 lingered the Harligs and their team started to look ahead, and they wondered what their programs and services were going to look like under the cloud of social distancing. Here again, they came up with a plan. True, volunteers weren’t able to hook up with friends or go to events together but thanks to the organization’s resourcefulness they were able to create programs that could be attended virtually.
Coronavirus might be raging in Florida but the kids at Friendship Circle are having fun and staying connected to their friends. “While COVID-19 has taken in-person events off the table, we’re still gathering virtually to socialize, explore and have fun. We offer a full range of virtual activities throughout the summer. Each week has been jam-packed with virtual events, from art to music to virtual field trips,” said Heidi Rutland, program and family manager for Friendship Circle.
Reminder: you can learn more and register to join the Friendship Circle’s virtual events program by filling out this form: friendshipcirclemiami.org/virtual
Nothing is going to get in the way of our purpose
Both the Harligs agree, when an organization is confronted with challenges it can make you stronger. When you’re a teenager, a birthday is very important. Friendship Circle was one of the first groups to host a birthday caravan. “We wanted teens to remember that their birthday during 2020 was a happy and memorable one,” said Rabbi Harlig.
Friendship Circle organized the caravan with dozens of cars that zig-zagged across Miami Dade County visiting homes of students who were celebrating birthdays that month. “It was spectacular,” Nechama says.
Local media was very impressed with the Friendship Circle’s creativity, energy and determination and covered many of the events.
Looking back, Friendship Circle has grown in ways they never expected. We never could have predicted all of the blessings that have come our way. “There’s a renewed spirit and determination that inspires everyone to never give up,” says Rabbi Harlig.
“Let’s face it,” he adds. “There was never a handbook for how to run a not for profit under the cloud of COVID-19. Yet somehow, someway, we figured it out.”