“I want to know everything about you!” What’s your connection to Friendship Circle?”
Julie sits down across from me at Soul Cafe. She is Bassie Shemtov’s executive assistant and my staff fundraising partner for this year’s Walk 4 Friendship.
“Well, Julie … I guess it started when I was fired as a volunteer.”
But let’s give that some context.
2019 started spectacularly. I performed in the January Let’s Just Say. The theme was Lucky. And I talked about how lucky I felt to be where I was — living with bipolar disorder. Shared with pride having that perfect balance of experience and hypochondria to stay stable and highly functional.
Then just a couple weeks later, I was in psych in-patient with severe mania. And true to form, as with all prior episodes, I was in and out of hospitals for months with no end in sight.
I was not okay on any level. For work, I would do attorney document review, which is its own circle of hell. And I just couldn’t. Couldn’t focus on the work enough to meaningfully support myself. Plus that year I had surgery to repair a collapsed nasal valve. Complying with post-surgery instructions on a psych ward is less than ideal. Just one thing on top of another.
I had so little money. And yet I felt the need to show I was not scared that a dollar was my last — by going to Dunkin Donuts.
I remember one afternoon, probably around early June, I left the doc review worksite and stopped at the Dunkin Donuts near my place on the way home. I desperately looked to my phone for a different job. I remember decades ago how much I loved camp. But now with two cats at home, overnight camp was not really an option (not to mention the state of my health, though I definitely lacked that insight at the time.)
And then I saw a post for JCC Day Camp just a few miles from my place. I applied right there and then. There were options for which positions people were applying to be considered. One of the options I selected was to work with special needs campers. I am not sure why. I just thought, why not?
Instead of going home from Dunkin Donuts, I drove a couple miles past my apartment to Heritage Park. When I parked less than 10 minutes later, I saw I already had a response from Stephanie, the special needs programming director. She wanted to set up an interview. Beshert!
Within days, I accepted a position as camp counselor with special needs young adults. I provided my contract showing projected earnings of $250 per week to qualify for food assistance at Yad Ezra.
Shortly before camp started, the camp hosted an open house for a chance for campers and parents to meet the counselors and other staff that would be taking care of them this summer. That night to my surprise and delight, I saw Jules! Now better known as Julie Zorn, Jules was my supervisor when I was 10 years old and a camper in "GP" at Tamarack Camps in Brighton. Her son Sean would be my camper that summer.
Camp was scheduled to run for 10 weeks. I really struggled. Every week at least one day, I just couldn’t overcome my emotional and physical state to show up. That summer, Detroit was the host for the Maccabi Games. A lot of the programming and competitions would be taking place at the same site as the JCC Day Camp.
I remember the first time one of my campers really took my hand because he wanted to — because it was part of his communication with me. I couldn’t stop looking at our hands. He wove each finger around each of my fingers. He punctuated his words with a tap or a twist. And he led me around the space we were in and that space became a whole other universe that only we experienced. The way he held my hand made me feel chosen and wanted and needed and good.
There were so many moments that I was grateful for with everyone of my campers — teaching and learning daily how nothing is more powerful than connecting with another human in a way that is wanted and inclusive and makes us feel seen and understood — but, ultimately, the stress and anxiety made it impossible for me to continue and I gave notice that I would resign.
Soul Studio and Soul Cafe are just a mile away from the JCC. They are both part of Friendship Circle. I don’t remember how I first found my way there. But I do recall being totally in awe of Soul Studio. The different types of art, the bios of the artists, the large dedication to the vision and teachings of The Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson — it all enthralled me.
I signed up to volunteer to assist the Artists and Staff a couple days a week. But I was still manic and had not yet stabilized and was still in and out of hospitals. Even with all that, I still couldn’t process the anger I felt when the Soul Studio Director “fired me” as a volunteer.
I remember walking to my car in the parking lot and sitting there and my heart beating so fast. I knew I had so much to contribute — even if I had miles to go on my journey toward wellness.
At that point, I had never participated in Walk 4 Friendship. But being unable to continue with JCC Camp or Soul Studio made me desperate for some outlet so support these amazing kids — and to show how valuable I could be to my community. So I signed up for the walk and reached out to a few people to ask for donations. I think that year, I raised less than $200. It felt good.
This is my fifth year participating in Walk 4 Friendship. As of today, for this year’s campaign, I have raised $8,236.65 — an counting! — from 216 donors. I am in the top ten for individual funds raised (not that it’s a competition) with 10 days left to reach my goal of $10,000.
Feeling rejected and marginalized lit a spark within me to show that I could be valuable, in spite of all the barriers I was encountering. The truth, it turns out, is that we all have barriers — and we are all valuable and worthy and sparkly just as we are.