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A Community With Soul

Friendship Circle Provides Opportunities for Special-Needs Adults

To “see a person for their soul, and not the superficial layers that enclose us” is behind the mission of Soul Café, says Bassie Shemtov, director of Friendship Circle. The café, located on Drake Rd at Walnut Lake Rd in West Bloomfield, offers special-needs adults the opportunity to learn vocational skills in a working restaurant, and, as Bassie adds, gives them “a place where they are not only accepted, but welcomed and respected.” Soul Café grew out of the work of Friendship Circle, a local program offering recreational, social, educational, and vocational programming for people with special needs founded in 1994. Originally established to serve children, the program expanded in recent years to include Soul Café and Soul Studio, where special-needs adults learn real-life vocational skills through food service and the arts. At the café, participants learn valuable restaurant-focused and functional job skills and hone other “soft skills”, such as planning, organization, and dealing with work-related anxiety. At the studio, student artists are exposed to a variety of art media and processes such as ceramics, painting, and weaving, and even sell their artwork through the studio’s gallery. “The families of children we served at Friendship Circle were calling, asking for help,” says Bassie. “They asked, ‘What can you do for us now?’” While Friendship Circle had served many special-needs children over the years, what happens after they age out of the program? How can these individuals be supported as they grow into adulthood and still need help to be more independent? Bassie felt there was clearly a need to be met, both for the former participants of Friendship Circle as well as other special-needs adults in the area. The feeling of isolation after leaving school, paired with the lack of available job opportunities, meant that a perfect solution would need to provide community, support, and work skills training in one location. Out of this desire to continue this mission of service, along with Soul Studio, Soul Café was born. Originally, the café was planned to be a simple cafeteria-style location, but the results soon exceeded expectations. Today, Soul Café is a “proper restaurant,” according to Bassie, offering fresh, made-from-scratch kosher cuisine. Tom Sheehan, one of the chefs at Soul Café, agrees. “The food we produce is 100% from scratch, and everything is made in-house under strict kosher guidelines. We are completely vegetarian with dairy and eggs as the only animal products used.” Menu items include smoothies, breakfast items, pizza, sandwiches, and Bassie’s favorites, salmon sliders and Caesar salad. Often, the benefits of hiring special-needs adults are overlooked by businesses, according to Bassie. She stresses that although they need time and careful training, they are great employees and a positive addition to the community. Bassie notes that the welcoming environment fostered by Soul Café benefits the business, its employees, and the community itself. Further, not only do special-needs people learn usable work skills and how to become more productive and independent members of society, but the general public grows in its understanding and appreciation of this unique population. Tom agrees, saying, “(Special-needs adults) bring an energy and excitement to our workplace that alleviates the usual stress and angst that is normally a constant in a professional scratch kitchen. They are always eager to help and anxious to do things well. We have them do basic tasks such as portioning pasta, measuring ingredients for a recipe, or cutting bread for croutons. I have made it a priority to teach them the importance of cleaning and sanitizing their workstations after every task and staying focused on what they are doing in order to achieve the best results.” Continues Tom, “The overall atmosphere of the café, as well as throughout the Friendship Circle, is one of acceptance, kindness, cooperation, and fun. We all work hard, help, and support each other.” Community members looking to support the mission of Soul Café and its sister project, Soul Studio, are invited to drop by! Bassie stresses that the special-needs artists at Soul Studio love to chat with visitors about their work or invite them to shop in the artists’ gallery. Volunteering and donations are also encouraged, contact Friendship Circle for more information. Soul Café and Soul Studio Friendship Circle Farber Center 5586 Drake Rd West Bloomfield, MI friendshipcircle.org

  • Artists at work in Soul Studio.