The Friendship Circle counted plenty of friends among the crowd that had gathered Sunday to celebrate the grand opening of the organization’s new facilities in the heart of Squirrel Hill. Located at 1922 Murray Ave., the location — a completely renovated space that was once the home of Gullifty’s restaurant — offers plenty of room for the Friendship Circle, which in the words of executive director Rabbi Mordy Rudolph, is “dedicated to helping children and young adults with special needs to become more fully integrated into the broader community.”
“Part of our commitment was choosing a physical space that reflects Friendship Circle, and that is that the space breaks down walls and barriers between different types of people,” explained Rudolph.
The building, which was purchased in September 2013 and experienced several years of internal demolition and construction, began hosting Friendship Circle activities this past summer. The space is ADA compliant and boasts a full commercial and kosher kitchen to be used for cooking clubs, said Meghan Gary, development associate at the Friendship Circle.
“We also have a green roof [where] we are starting to develop our rooftop garden. It’s all along Murray Avenue and has a great view of Squirrel Hill,” Gary added.
Other features of the redesigned building include multiple spaces for participants to congregate. There is a teen lounge with E-readers and televisions, a sibling space and even a parent area “where parents can look at kids without being a distraction,” said Gary.
The building demonstrates three goals, said Rudolph. “One, there is ideal program space. We wanted a place we could control. Two, there is lounge space where people can come and be. Three, we wanted to build a space
that allows for the community to interact.”
Creating an open environment that fosters communal fraternization was key, explained Rudolph. “It’s not just for people with special needs, but for people of all abilities. We’d love for everyone to view it as that type of space.”
During the grand opening, past friends and parents joined newer participants against a backdrop of music, prepared food and the blowing of a shofar by Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, dean of Yeshiva Schools, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Pittsburgh and Rudolph’s father-in-law.
In presiding over the ceremony, Rudolph acknowledged the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, asking those present to contemplate the past with an eye to the future.
“It is the Hebrew month of Elul and a time to reflect on the past year and think about the coming year … and how we could elevate this year,” he said.
Prior to Rivkee Rudolph, director of Friendship Circle, formally cutting the ribbon, several local officials made public remarks.
Councilman Corey O’Connor read a proclamation declaring the day to be “Friendship Circle Day in the City of Pittsburgh.”
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, meanwhile, called the facility, which once also housed a theater, “great.”
“I remember the movie theater,” he said. “I remember the restaurant. This might be the best place.”
“It brings new life to Squirrel Hill,” echoed O’Connor.
“I remember when it was a small little office,” Heather Mallet, a Friendship Circle volunteer, said of the Friendship Circle’s first location, as she conducted a tour of the new building.
“It’s amazing. There were maybe 10 to 20 volunteers when I was in high school, now they are in the hundreds. It’s amazing growth,” noted Gwen Barney, who volunteered with the Friendship Circle between 2007 and 2009.
Though no longer volunteering with the organization, Barney felt that it was necessary to attend the grand opening.
“It was such a big part of my life when I was in high school. I wanted to see how it’s grown in the years since,” she said.
Part of what brought Mallet to the grand opening and has kept her connected to the organization for nearly a decade is its sense of community.
“You look at a picture of the friends and you don’t know who has the disability and who doesn’t,” she said. “Everyone is friends.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.