Soul Café and Soul Studio (and Lifetown-Detroit, MI)

SOUL CAFÉ (and Friendship Circle/Farber Center/Art Studio)
5586 Drake Rd. West Bloomfield Township, MI 48322
Directors/founders: Rabbi Levi and Bassie Shemtov

“A Café serving breakfast and lunch (and Sunday dinner) with a training program in food services for people with disabilities. Job training areas include “front of house” work (barista and bussing) and kitchen work). Also, art studio where artists with disabilities create and sell art. Established in April, 2016, 24 trainees to date have come through program. Up to 7 people with disabilities work in café on a given day, 12 are currently in the training program, and four to date have been hired by Epicurean, the parent food service company”

The Visit/History of the Program:

I arrived to the suburban Detroit café by cab and observed the building and program first from the outside, then from the café during breakfast. As the café is located in the suburbs, in a small shopping center, there is no foot traffic; people would not discover the Soul Café by accident—they come here intentionally.

On the morning of my visit, there was a large group of people eating in the restaurant for both breakfast and lunch. Some customers appeared to be dining with friends while others conducting business meetings. There is an open, airy feel in this well-lit restaurant. Visitors are encouraged to visit the art gallery as well and many commented about the quality and variety of art in the “Location, Location, Location” exhibit in the gallery.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov met me for breakfast and explained the history and evolution of the Friendship Circle. When he and wife, Bassie, arrived in Detroit in 1994 to start their “shlichus” (service as Chabad emissaries), they started by meeting the needs of one person with mental health issues. When the 27-year-old sadly died of a drug overdose, his parents donated funds for a future Friendship House, which would serve as a “small house with a rabbi, to meet the needs of people who were isolated and needed friends.” It would be “a soul.” The Shemtovs met with heads of all area Jewish social service agencies and synagogues to begin to identify community needs. They called it “Friendship Circle;” they could not call it “Friendship House” since they did not yet have a house.

In their assessment of communal needs, The Shemtovs began asking, “Who needs friend?” They began by serving people who were in prisons (Bassie notes also people with crack addiction). The Shemtovs began hearing that people with special needs and their families were expressing feelings of isolation and a need of friends. A Conservative rabbi of a shul “going out of business” (in Levonia, MI) noted the need for tutoring for some children in his community. The Shemtovs found teen volunteers who they drove to Levonia for the tutoring. The Shemtovs observed that the teens were getting a lot out of it (In addition, reports Levi, “Bassie was great at motivating teenagers!”), so the ones who were doing the tutoring were recruited to help volunteer with another group of children with special needs. The Shemtovs sent a letter to all families of children with special needs and got four responses. They started bringing teens to these homes and started growing “slowly slowly.” Friendship Circle was therefore born in 1994 and spread to Montreal, Columbus, OH, Livingston, NJ and within five years, spread to other cities.

Families in Detroit continued turning to Friendship Circle to help address the needs of their children as they got older and graduated from high school. The Shemtovs traveled the country to learn of models of ideal settings for working with young adults with disabilities. They noted success in two areas—cafes and art. They decided to create Soul Café and Art Studio. While working on setting up the program (the program is private pay by families of trainees and artists, and also receives funding from many private donors), the Shemtovs partnered with Epicurean/Milk and Honey to begin a weekly challah baking program out of the local JCC. Some of these trainees became the first cohort at the Soul Café.

In an interview with Bassie Shemtov, co-founder of the Friendship Circle, she spoke of “the relationship between the teens and adults who felt fulfilled as they helped make the world a better place.” She points out that, in 1976, the Rebbe began using the term “exceptional” instead of “handicapped,” noting that each person has exceptional abilities.

Bassie offers additional information on the history of the Soul Café and Studio, which came about five years ago when families started speaking of “falling off cliff,” referring to what happens when people with disabilities graduate from high school and have few work opportunities (In Michigan, unlike most states, students can stay in school until age 26). “The parents begged us. Their children were getting depressed, eating, and playing video games. So we started a small café.” Bassie had flown around the country in search of models. “We decided we have the power. The Michigan community is amazing. A $100,000 project turned in to $5 million project. We gutted the building. When it was finished, we held a shower for the building 450 women showed up. People were beyond excited with the concept.”

To date, there have been five graduates of the vocational training program who now work in the community, in other restaurants. “In the artist’s studio,” notes Bassie, “the artists work from 10-3 to produce and sell their art. They get 40% of what they sell of their fine art and 10% other products. People like Felicia Bowers (an artist who draws with her eye movements—see article below) may be able to make a real living with her art.” Bassie again quotes the Rebbe, who in 1976 said, “If you have a challenge, you have extra abilities in other areas.” She feels this is very obvious now. She is very excited to have Anthony Marellini on board. He joined as art studio manager five months ago. “He had no experience with special needs—he has a knack to understand people, truly understands artists.”

The Detroit Friendship Circle serves non –Jewish as well as Jewish clients. “If you have the ability to help more, it is a Kiddush HaShem,” (a sanctification of God’s name) the Rebbe would say. It has done a lot for the overall Jewish community, helping everybody and doing it together.”

Kim Kaplan, supervisor of trainees for the café, and support person for the art studio, had been working with Friendship Circle for four years when they started the challah-baking (one day a week) and selling program. She notes that Alexa, David and Armand, three trainees currently at the program, started in the challah program and continued working in the café, which started in April, 2016. She calculates 12 total trainees in the program and 7 working at any given time. Some have completed their training and are paid staff; some are “in the trial phase.”). Three didn’t complete program and three currently work in the artist studio. She estimates that twenty have gone through program to date, and four are hired and employed here or at Epicurean (another location). Families pay for the training program and trainees receive at least minimum wage, as required by law. Kim described in detail the process of assessing the trainees.

Kim begins with an informal assessment of whether or not participants can read, understand such basic words and concepts like “prioritizing,” and work a four-hour day. All training is very individualized. Some trainees may work on making positive statements like “thanks for telling me” instead of saying “what?” Some trainees are working on behavioral issues. Kim sees her role as “conductor” of the work force (watching and letting trainees them know what needs to be done).

She stresses that communication with families is important as well. In addition, a goal of the program is to find more places of employment in the community (i.e. with a local florist). There are three in- house coaches who are employees of the restaurant—this is part of the peer model which the Shemtovs are proud to report they introduced here. The co-workers receive an additional stipend to work with the trainees “so they are invested”. Kim explains that some workers are assessed as: emerging, some assistance, minimal assistance, or independent. The goal is to reach the level of “independent.” Kim notes that the social piece, learned and fostered in the café, is very important. It includes: getting along with others, following instructions in the correct order (listening to all of the steps first), work speed, communicating with the supervisor when a task is completed, and asking for further instructions. “Learning soft skills are very important.” Jobs currently include washing dishes, food prep, and “bussers” (bussing tables), with jobs taking place in all three areas of the restaurant—front of the house, middle, and back.

Kaplan reports that the driver for setting up the café program was a donor, who wanted them to move from challah baking only to café. Families said, “What happens next?” as their adult children were sitting at home?”

Shalom Shomer, the general manager of the kosher part of Milk and Honey/Epicurean, notes that his relationship with Friendship Circle started 4 years ago with a challah baking project, where “people showed they can learn skills.” After one year, it was suggested that they partner to start a restaurant, which opened 2-1/2 years ago. This is how Soul Café got started. “Our company believes in “the do good” and wanted to fill a community need. The business is not profitable as of yet but it is getting better.”

Shomer points out some issues unique to running a training program for people with disabilities. “Training needs extra staff and there are extra costs—there is breakage, we need to pay minimum wage according to state law, and the amount of time staff spends on the training is time consuming.” In addition to serving as an important training ground, it fills an important need in the community. (food prep, bussers). We try to find strengths quickly then work with our trainees on being versatile. Toward that end, he works on “cross training”—prep cooks learn to work in the dish put. This will allow them to be more successful in the future.

Nora Barron a volunteer and psychotherapist worked for 30 years, is very involved in the art community. She has been working with one young man for two years in the art studio to help him get comfortable with colors and art work in general. His socialization and vocabulary has expanded a great deal through his work in the artist’s studio.

Rabbi Levi brings our meeting to a close by further explaining where the idea for the café and art studio came from. “We looked across the country at different ideas—we saw cafes as training place to launch vocational skills, and we saw art studios (i.e. in Boston and Oakland and mid-Michigan). We asked people at both art studios and cafes what people would have done differently. We decided to use peer support and coaching over job coaches, which was our original concept. We also learned the importance of consistently serving good food. “People would come once or twice to be nice but that’s it—unless the food is good!”

People interviewed:

-Bassie and Rabbi Levi Shemtov-founders
-Kim Kaplan-director of training/Soul Café Supervisor of Trainees
-Shalom Shomer-GM (kosher part of Milk and Honey/Epicurean)
-Nora Barron-volunteer
-Logan-trainee with disabilities
-Anthony Marellini-art director

Brief Description (from Website):

Upon graduation from Friendship Circle programming, many adults with challenges find themselves socially isolated – without an outlet or employment. The Farber Center is home to the Dresner Foundation Soul Studio and Soul Cafe, which provide a loving and inclusive environment for artistic self-expression, vocational training, and employment opportunities, hosting and serving.

The Soul Café provides a mouthwatering kosher menu featuring gourmet soups, salads, sandwiches pizzas, pastas and more in a warm and relaxed environment.

Complete with a community table, fireplace and outdoor dining the Soul Cafe provides an excellent opportunity to meet friends, get some work done or grab a quick bite.

The cafe is part of Friendship Circle’s Soul Projects, which focuses on providing vocational opportunities to adults with special needs. The cafe teaches adults with special needs the skills of food prep, cooking.

Observations/Lessons Learned:

-There are extra costs associated with running a restaurant which is staffed by young adults with disabilities, including: additional staff time devoted to training the trainees; salaries (state law requires paying minimum wage), extra breakage (glasses, plates, etc.).

-Additional benefits of a restaurant where trainees and employees have disabilities include:  reliability and consistency of workers who also “bring out the best” in the typical workers

-Working in a café/restaurant helps with both the job skills piece (i.e. learning to follow steps in the correct order) and with the social piece (getting along with others—both fellow employees and customers).

-Impetus for program’s founding: Families said, “What happens next? We have our adult children sitting at home?”

-Find strengths quickly then also work on cross training (prep cooks learn how to work dish pit, for example)

-Manager’s approach and attitude to all workers: “This is an opportunity to help and give back to society and to people who are different. If you are going to be here, you need to have a smile on your face and realize that everyone here…this is their situation and we are going to make the best of it.”

-Have a great restaurant which happens to be kosher and stick to the mission! – “Serve good food consistently—people would come once or twice to be nice but that’s it—unless the food is good.”

-Do good research and learn from others: they looked across country at different ideas and discovered both cafes and art studios.

Life Town and Friendship Circle Building Tour:

My visit to Detroit (Soul Café and Studio) concluded with a visit to the Friendship Circle’s home and Life Town, approximately 2 miles from the café and art studio. Life Town serves to train people with disabilities to navigate and gain experience is such real life situations as a bank (Huntington Bank), grocery store, doctor and dentists’ office and crosswalks and traffic signs. The Friendship Circle building also contains a Snoezelen (sensory) room, a water room, art room, sand room, gross motor room, a dance and music room and a large indoor gym.

This is my account of the visit, as reported in—it mainly focuses on artist, Felicia Bowers:

Art Through Felicia’s Eyes: Friendship Circle Directors Turn to Michigan Suburb Where it All Started.
WEST BLOOMFIELD, Mich.—Felicia Bowers’ smile was the size of Lake Michigan when she received the latest update on the number of Facebook viewers who have watched the “Art Through Felicia’s Eyes” video. “You just broke 1 million!” exclaimed Bassie Shemtov, co-founder and director (with her husband, Rabbi Levi) of Friendship Circle. Within a few hours, the number of viewers had already jumped to 1.2 million.

The 27-year-old Detroit resident and her art have been receiving a great deal of attention, partly due to her portrait, “The Dancer”—depicting a very active dancer in a wheelchair—which sold for $14,500 as part of a recent evening event that raised more than $100,000 for the Friendship Circle.

Bowers is intelligent, articulate, persistent and has a great sense of humor. She also has cerebral palsy, is non-verbal, uses a wheelchair at all times, and communicates—and draws—with assistive technology, a Tobii Dynavox tablet with Eyegaze eye-tracking software.

The artist has many followers and admirers in the Detroit area, across the United States and online. Using her eye-tracking equipment, she recently spoke with at Friendship Circle’s Farber Center in West Bloomfield Township, Mich.—and shared her interest in art, how she uses her eyes to communicate and create art, her involvement with Friendship Circle, and her advice for other artists with and without disabilities.

We met in an art room, surrounded by works created by Felicia Bowers and other artists with disabilities at the Dresner Foundation’s Soul Studio. Her mother, Tina Bowers, and Friendship Circle of Michigan’s special-projects coordinator, Jamie Reedholm, joined in the conversation.

The Interview:

Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself. How old are you? Where do you live? Who are some important people in your family and circle of friends?
Felicia: I am 27 years old. I live with my mom, dad and my dog, Max. He is a Shiatzu. He comes here sometimes and sits on my lap!

Q: How and when did you hear about Friendship Circle? What are some of the things you do here?
Felicia: I was watching the news and saw Lillia.

Jamie Reedholm: From the beginning of Friendship Circle, we had a young woman named Lillia who, like Felicia, was in a wheelchair. They had a lot in common, but we learned that afterwards. We were able to get Lillia her own apartment. And with the generosity of the people in our community, it was fully accessible and totally hers. The news came and did a story about it. That’s how Felicia and her family learned about Friendship Circle. Sadly, Lillia passed away.

Q: Can you explain how you are communicating with me right now?
Felicia: I use my eyes to say what I want. There is a camera in the bottom of my device. It tracks my eyes, and when I look at a particular square, selects it. It is a type of Dynavox, a Tobii Dynavox.

Tina Bowers: It can strain your eyes. She is very strong. She had help programming each page—each square has a sentence underneath—she knows what is under each square. She knows where everything is, where she needs to go. She does a lot of spelling. She goes to the dictionary. She looks for a word.

Felicia: My boyfriend, John Wirth, programmed my Tobii.

Q: What are some of the things you do when you come to Friendship Circle?
Felicia: I went shopping and bowling and swimming. I met new friends.

Jamie: The first program she was involved in when she came to Friendship Circle is called “Teen Trips.” Every Sunday, we take teens and young adults on trips.

Q: When did you start with the art part of the program?
Felicia: 2016

Q: How did you discover that you were interested in art?
Felicia: I have always enjoyed art. I remember the first time I created art in middle school. It was the first time I felt free from cerebral palsy and in control of my body.

Q: What did you do? What was the project when you had the moment when you felt so free? Tina prompts Felicia: Do you remember what you were drawing? Were you painting? Painting with your foot? You were painting with your foot. You had different colors, with a paintbrush taped to your foot. She colored with her hands, but we had to tape crayons on to her hands and we had to mount the paper a certain way to the table for her to color. When she was about 2 or 3 years old, she was walking in the baby walker. I had taped crayons onto her hands, and she walked over to the wall and I had told her not to color on the wall, and she colored on the walls!

Q: So she was very typical … big surprise … a defiant 2-year-old …
Tina: Her dad saw it and said, “No!” so we got a piece of plywood and leaned it against the kitchen cabinet and stuck paper on it, and she used to draw while walking over there. It is funny—while in baby-walker upright, she would always go backwards because she didn’t have good support of her body. I was talking to my mom one day and saying, “I wish she could walk forward.” Next minute—she came out from the kitchen, into the living room, walking forward. She leaned against the tray and was walking forward. That is how she was coloring—she would support herself on the tray of the baby-walker, and she would go over and color on the board—that’s why her dad set it up there so she could get to the paper, leaning against it and just color.

Q: (For Tina): You saw she had this interest from an early age, that there was this interest in art, something inside … ?
Tina: Yes. She was drawing lines, always telling me what colors she wanted. She was doing color selections. That’s when she was a baby. I didn’t know it was going to go anywhere because we didn’t know how much her body could do. As she got older, it seems she went from elementary to junior high, and when she got the communication box, she was using a switch. We didn’t have the Eyegaze at that time. But she still had a unit where if she wanted something, she would go to each block, and when she wanted that square, she clicked the clicker—with your foot, right?

Q: I get the feeling the artist was always inside and with each technology (brush on foot, crayons on finger, etc.) it became …
Tina: She is still growing, and doing more and more and more. And now look what she is doing with lines, with her eyes.

Q: What is your favorite form of art? Is it line drawings, painting, ceramics …
Tina to Felicia: Is it the line drawing? You should put that (the response) in there (in the Dynavox).

Tina: It refreshes her memory for what she wants to say … when she hasn’t talked all day, she is trying to figure out what to say …
It has always been inside of her. It’s just now she is trying to get it all out and it is really very frustrating for her to get her thoughts on the screen, to type all the sentences out. It has been very frustrating all these years. She has been trying to tell us so much all these years. Now that she has started Soul Center, she has gotten stronger and is learning a lot more—not just drawing, but talking.

Jamie: The social aspect.

Tina: She needed all this. She had some at school, but it is stronger here. And since she has been with John, she has gotten stronger. It is amazing. Works on display at the Dresner Soul Studio, a unique vocational training program, studio and gallery where artists with disabilities work daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Their work is then sold in the gallery.

Q: What are some of the themes in your art and why? Things or ideas which keep coming up? That you like to draw?
Felicia: My favorite art piece is to make art which reminds me of the people I love.

Q: Can you give me an example? Something you draw that reminds you of people you love?
Felicia: (Staring at the wall across from her, at her self-portrait of her and John) (Everyone laughs)

Q: Where did you get the idea of the dancer? Do you like to dance?
Felicia: I was little and used to go to Eagle’s Club.

Tina: They used to have a dance; you could take your family and dance. My sister would push her around in her wheelchair and dance with her, twirl her around. That’s what brought that out. That’s what she’s feeling when she sees a dancer. The painting is an actual dancer in a wheelchair dance company in L.A.

Q: What are you working on now?
Felicia: I am drawing Ellen!

Tina: Television host Ellen DeGeneres.

Q: I know you guys aren’t Jewish. What is it like to be included in a Jewish program?
Felicia: We appreciate being in the program.

Tina: She really appreciates everything they are doing. She is growing so much more with her communication box, learning more, talking more and getting more words out there. This has opened doors even more.

Q: What is your advice/message for other artists—with and without disabilities?
Felicia: Never give up!

Q: What do you think our society has to keep doing to be more welcoming and inclusive and better for people with disabilities?
Felicia: Be caring and understanding.

Q: Last question. Can you describe the night when your “Dancer” portrait was sold? What was that like? How did you feel?
Felicia: Wow.

Artists and Teachers Express Hope for the Future

While Felicia and her art continue to receive worldwide attention and praise, she is one of a number of talented artists and teachers at the Dresner Soul Studio, a unique vocational training program, studio and gallery where artists work daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Their work is then sold in the gallery.

On the day of my visit, Rollie King of Minneapolis was walking around the gallery. “I really love art, and I’m beyond amazed. This stuff is really great!” She pointed out some of her favorite pieces. “This clock is outstanding!” She is particularly proud of her nephew, Kevin Shink, an artist in his mid-50’s, and pointed out his large three-dimensional creation depicting the city of Detroit.

While Bassie Shemtov is proud of all of the artists, there is particular pride in Felicia Bowers. “Felicia will be able to make a real living, especially as her story is getting out there and as she creates more work, which is something that nobody thought was possible.”

Shemtov says that much of the studio’s success can be attributed to the dedication and creativity of Anthony Marcellini, programs and exhibitions manager at the Soul Studio. “Anthony is so talented. He had no experience working with people with special needs before joining us here,” says Shemtov. “Yet he has a knack of understanding people and truly respects and loves the artists.”

Marcellini notes the unique opportunities at Soul Studio, “For me, what has been most revealing about working with someone like Felicia is discovering her potential. Because cerebral palsy limits normal methods of communication, many people would write her off as non-verbal and perhaps even low functioning. But actually, she is very smart and has enormous verbal and creative potential. She simply needs the right tools to work around her specific situation. She needs challenges and encouragement to create, newer, different and better work along the way. This is actually the same with every artist in our program, though each person’s specific needs and drives are different.”

Marcellini has been instrumental in helping Felicia continue to find ways to be her best as an artist. Felicia has evolved from painting with her feet and using crayons attached to her fingers, to carefully sketching with her Dynavox. Marcellini explains the technical aspects of Felicia’s drawings.

“Felicia draws using a Tobii Dynavox tablet with Eyegaze eye tracking software. Because of Felicia’s cerebral palsy she is unable to use her arms and legs to the precision she would like to make art. So she has learned how use eye tracking software, to move a cursor across the computer screen and make lines. Every time she turns her eye towards the screen it is like she is clicking the button on the mouse, or like putting pencil to paper, and when she moves her eye away it unclicks, like lifting the pencil off the paper. This, as you might imagine, takes tremendous precision and concentration to operate. Felicia has been using this software and similar software for quite some time, and is able to do this simply because she is very precise, hardworking and talented at it. We are now trying to get her to loosen up and be a little freer with it, to explore new and freer ways of expressing herself. We are also trying to bring in some of the methods she used in the past, like painting with her foot or head, to add some expression to the drawings.”

Marcellini loves his work at the Soul Studio. “What is so exciting about this place is that it is an art studio first, where participants come to the studio curious, enthusiastic and driven. They are met by an equally curious, enthusiastic and driven staff of practicing artists and designers, whose sole aim is to propel their creative ideas into new spheres by providing tools to sidestep or surmount their disabilities. It is a place of constant surprises that has totally shifted my perspective, on education, service and ability. Here art serves as a primary form of communication when common forms are less accessible.”

Nicole Kahan began volunteering at the Friendship Circle when she was in seventh grade and continued to work here through high school. She sees tremendous benefit in Friendship Circle for both participants and for the community. “It benefits the overall community because it normalizes people with disabilities and shows the community that we can all be friends. It benefits its volunteers because it allows people to interact with others they wouldn’t normally interact with. It also helps you gain a lot of leadership experience as well as normalizing these interactions. It creates opportunities for teens.”

Kahan is one of the many admiring members of the Detroit community who appear in the viral “Felicia’s Eyes” video. “When I first saw Felicia’s artwork, I truly was speechless. She had the ability to create something so incredible in such a different way.”

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