NOTES by Claudia Potamkin: The Friendship Circle

The organzation presented its inaugrual "Heart & Soul" Benefit

Claudia Potamkin and Andi Potamkin

Special needs got special attention at The Penthouse at Riverside Wharf as 300 dignitaries, philanthropists and supporters turned out to salute the Friendship Circle of Miami at its inaugural “Heart & Soul Benefit.” The event flowed as smoothly as an event many years in the running and power players like Senator Marco Rubio, Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, and Children’s Trust CEO Jim Haj appeared to be riveted by a program emceed by State Representative Vance Aloupis, where organizers unveiled big plans to keep pace with the special needs community – which has been growing at an alarming rate.

Since the year 2000, the rate of Autism Spectrum Disorder has increased nearly 150 percent to 1 in every 59 children today, and Friendship Circle is well on its way to beginning construction on a state of the art campus that will increase its space to serve this growing need. The planned expansion will enable them to include on site therapies, new specialty programs and increase the number of families served from the 300 currently served to thousands.

Friendship Circle operates with the mission to build friendships and teaches life skills to individuals with special needs, provide respite to their families and empower young people through volunteerism – to foster an inclusive community which participants desperately need.

My personal involvement began when I got a call from Rabbi Yossi Harlig last year asking if I would sit with him to learn about Friendship Circle’s ambitious plans. I was familiar with the organization because my youngest son, Cole, had volunteered there years ago and was transformed by the experience.


Rabbi Yossi Harlig, Hear and Soul Award Receipient Dr. Trevor Resnick, Nechama Harlig

I learned that the Rabbi and his wife Nechama Harlig had begun the program with only a few children 15 years ago operating out of a home with adjacent in-laws quarters in South Dade. Fast forward to today, the nonprofit is driven by the more than 200 teenage volunteers drawn from more than 35 schools throughout Miami Dade County who put in cumulatively 5,000 community service hours annually. More than 1,000 teenagers have volunteered in the program as mentors and trusted friends to children with special needs since inception

The Harligs realized their facility had become insufficient to manage the tremendous growth and they could not provide the necessary space to introduce new, innovative services they aspired to offer and that families seek. Turning families away was not an option so they hired an architect, drew plans, applied for permitting – which they received – and began their campaign to raise funds. I also learned — and take your time with this — they did so singlehandedly with the help of volunteers and involved parents over a period of several years.

Board Chair David Evensky

Rabbi Harlig told me they were developing a board to oversee the expansion efforts and asked me if I would join. I couldn’t say “Yes” quickly enough. It’s been an incredibly successful past year, achieving a great deal in such a short period of time. We have received grants from The Children’s Trust, The Batchelor Foundation, and the Peacock Foundation, secured an appropriation from the State of Florida, and made many great friends in the process!

“We could never have imagined how many lives we would touch,” says  Nechama Harlig. “We could never have predicted how many children, teens and adults with special needs would experience friendship in a way they never have before. Neither could we have imagined the community it would create and the bonds which would form between hundreds and hundreds of children and teens with special needs and their teen volunteers.”

Daniella Levine Cava presentes $20,000 check to Friendship Circle

The Heart & Soul Benefit honored esteemed neurologist, Dr. Trevor Resnick, and celebrated the organization’s network of volunteers, partners, and donors. The inspirational program featured a performance by 12-year-old pianist Jacob Valazquez, who happens to have autism, and a video showing moving moments during Summer and Winter camps, the annual Walk-a-thon, and the 21 different “Circles” such as Art Circle, Cooking Circle, Sports Circle and “Life Skills Around Town” – where participants visit places like the supermarket, post office and the metro rail to learn appropriate behaviors for independent living. Guests dined on delicacies prepared by Shaike’s catering and the evening was masterfully orchestrated by Amanda Lorenzo of Forever Yours Events.

Friendship Circle of Miami is an independent chapter of Friendship Circle International and a non-profit organization separate from the Chabad Center of Kendall, whose supporters have been instrumental in providing the funding, guidance and operational framework of the program. The nonsectarian program serves Miami’s rich racial, ethnic and socioeconomic populations, with about 1/3 of its participants of Jewish background.

Human connection is critically important to thrive healthily in this world, it’s something I’ve always felt and am certain psychology will back up. I do not have special needs in my experience personally but have always been moved by the thought of the rejection and loneliness experienced by those with special needs and the exhaustive isolation faced by their parents. A community center based on inclusion, acceptance and kindness is not a luxury but a necessity for these children who are developing their senses of selves and places in this world. Thank goodness for the generosity of spirit and the goodwill of our community.

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