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Detroit Center Inspiring Creativity in Special Needs Adults

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“I was blown away. People with special needs are crazy talented, and I just didn’t even know.”

That’s how Bassie Shemtov, co-founder of Friendship Circle, felt when she and her husband opened the West Bloomfield Farber Soul Center in May. Adults with special needs were blossoming before their eyes, cooking in a restaurant and selling their art for hundreds of dollars.

special needs program DetroitFriendship Circle is a nonprofit organization that has supported more than 3,500 Metro Detroit families of children with special needs since in 1994. Back then, most of the kids who attended the volunteer-driven educational and social activities were six to eight years old. But like in many areas of the country, people with special needs eventually “age out” of these programs, and adults are left with fewer options.

The Soul Café and West Bloomfield Farber Soul Center are changing that. Shemtov told The Detroit News that the 18,000-square-foot space provides employment and a vehicle for creativity. About 15 employees work alongside a special needs staff trained by Friendship Circle. The employees do their best with a range of tasks such as bussing tables or assisting chefs.

The 15,000-foot space behind the café became an art space where adults with special needs could sell their work. When new artists enter the program, staff artists explore their interests and natural tendencies. Playing off these factors, they encourage the artists to express themselves in their individually unique ways.

Brian Kavanaugh, for example, gave giant paper to a nonverbal 22-year-old who colors with wide, sweeping strokes. “You can see the consistency of the composition and colors,” Kavanaugh said. “That’s always a big moment for me … when somebody is making very particular choices about what they’re doing.”

The restaurant’s chef, Kasean Barber, teaches the staff to choose ingredients and cook items like French fries. The biggest challenge is to convey the point that everyone works together. “They have their own preconceived notions of how people view them already based on past experiences in their lives,” he told The Detroit News. “So I try to break that by showing them kindness and love but also being stern — that this is business.”

Congratulations to the volunteers and support for Friendship Circle, Soul Café, and West Bloomfield Farber Soul Center for their outstanding success with these inspiring programs.

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