Charlie Hagemeister began volunteering with the Friendship Circle five years ago. “I started in fourth grade through a program called the Friendship Club at Lincoln Elementary School in Redondo Beach,” he explains. “We would play with the kids in the club every Friday at lunchtime.”
One of those kids is Ezra, currently a sixth grader. “I get to hang out with friends, eat pizza and have a lot of fun,” he says. “I am happy and smile a lot more.”
“I love playing tag with Ezra,” Charlie shares. “We did it most days during last summer’s Friendship Foundation camp. It never got old. He was always really fast and tough to tag.”
“I feel that this is a new era for connecting, educating and inspiring our children throughout the South Bay community.”
The Friendship Foundation launched modestly 15 years ago with 22 teen volunteers serving eight children with special needs. They met once a month on a Sunday afternoon in Manhattan Beach to socialize, sing, laugh and enjoy quality time together. Soon some of the teen volunteers took the program further, establishing school-sanctioned clubs at Mira Costa High School, Redondo Union High School and Palos Verdes High School. Today 36 clubs operate throughout the public, private and charter South Bay school systems, reaching more than 1,800 people annually.
“Our community has been completely transformed since the Friendship Foundation opened its doors,” says Rabbi Yossi Mintz, founder and executive director. “We now have children with special needs and mainstream kids growing up together, supporting each other. To see change this profound and wide-reaching has been deeply moving—to these families, their peers and everyone who’s helped make this movement happen.”
Michael Greenberg, president of Skechers and the Skechers Foundation, remains a dedicated ally and supporter of the organization. “Back in school, I had the opportunity to assist children with special needs getting from class to class, and it was such a gift. I got to see the beauty in these kids early on, and it laid the foundation for a cause that’s been so central to my life for decades,” he says. “Every child and young adult I see, every friendship they make, it all inspires me to do more, educate our community and show these kids how much we love them.”
According to Rabbi Yossi, the Friendship Foundation will soon break ground on a 61,000-square-foot Friendship Vocational Campus. “[It] will transform lives, provide life and innovative vocational skills, and move the students toward independence,” he notes. “It will provide a multigenerational and transformative peer-to-peer place that will resonate for generations.”
The South Bay community can step up on October 30 and join the Skechers Pier to Pier Friendship Walk, now in its 14th year. Since 2009 the event has raised $13 million to support the Friendship Foundation and public education.
“Together with the hope and opportunities we’ve instilled through our national scholarship program and free state-of-the-art Roundhouse Aquarium, I feel that this is a new era for connecting, educating and inspiring our children throughout the South Bay community,” shares Michael.