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Friendship Foundation Receives $1 Million Grant for Friendship Clubs

Feb 17, 2023 08:05AM ● By Jeanne Fratello
On Thursday, Congressman Ted Lieu delivered a ceremonial $1 million check to the Friendship Foundation to expand the Friendship Clubs, which pair neurotypical students with special education students for fun and friendship. The ceremony was held at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, the site of the first Friendship Club in 2005.


The $1 million check is from a Congressional Community Project Funding Grant. The funding will help Friendship Foundation meet the needs and demands for more Friendship Clubs within schools in California's Congressional District 36; create training materials and videos for student volunteers, staff and educators; and increase social-emotional wellness among students while decreasing bullying, social isolation and other mental health issues.

Lieu was joined by Friendship Foundation team members; city and school leaders; and current and former students and teachers from Mira Costa's Friendship Club.

"I came here 15 years ago because a group of us believed that every child and every student deserves to have a friend, regardless of what your background is. Everyone deserves to be a part of the tapestry of having a good time," said Rabbi Yossi Mintz, executive director and president of the Friendship Foundation. "From this club at Mira Costa - it blossomed. And because of today it's going to grow even more rapidly."

Kelly Stroman with past and present members of the Friendship Club

"There are now over 52 school clubs at the elementary, middle, and high school levels - it's an amazing achievement, and it wouldn't have happened if it hadn't started right here at Costa," said Kelly Stroman, managing director of the Friendship Foundation. "Each school club is like a little seed - it's like a little sapling of a tree that's been planted all throughout the South Bay and beyond. And these trees grow, they strengthen, and their roots grow... And each one makes the community a safe place, an inclusive place, somewhere to come to for a sense of belonging and to form lifelong friendships. This is the foundation of our foundation."

"What you do is so very important," said Lieu as he presented the check. "Being here is one of the highlights of my entire year."

Also on hand for the presentation was MBUSD Superintendent John Bowes, MBUSD Board President Cathey Graves, Mira Costa Principal Karina Gerger, and Manhattan Beach City Councilmember Amy Howorth (who as a school board member set up one of the first meetings between Mintz and then-Superintendent Gwen Gross to facilitate what became the Friendship Club).

Friendship Club Creates Lasting Friendships

The Friendship Club, developed and funded by the Friendship Foundation, was among the first of its kind to focus on the social aspect of inclusion within schools. Friendship Clubs promote friendship and acceptance for students with special needs and their general education peers at no cost.

Programs include social activities and games, art supplies, physical activity equipment, science materials, nutrition, and more. Children with special needs are paired with student volunteers to eat lunch, socialize, play games, engage in STEAM-inspired projects and attend school events as a group.

Today, there are inclusive Friendship Clubs in schools throughout the greater South Bay area of L.A. (including Carson, Lakewood, Hawthorne, and Wiseburn) and they have expanded to
Bakersfield, Calif. plus chapters in Georgia, Alabama, and Arizona.

Currently, with nearly 200,000 students enrolled in special education in L.A. County alone, the demand for on-campus inclusive activities is soaring. Friendship Clubs aim to ensure that special education students are seen and acknowledged, develop new friendships, experience less bullying and other abusive actions. Many neurotypical peers report the clubs as being one of the highlights of their school experience.

Jacob Dominguez, teacher Sylvia Martinez, and Xan Saks

Xan Saks, a 2007 Mira Costa graduate and the first president of the original Friendship Club, came back for the event and had a warm reunion with his original buddy, Jacob Dominguez. 

"When I think back about my time in high school, I don't remember that much about what I learned in class, but I remember a lot of the memories with my friends, and the experiences we had," Saks told the current Friendship Club students. "The fact that you're involved in an organization whose mission is exactly that - to build bonds and friendships and connections - that's what you will carry with you for the rest of your life, I assure you."

Added Saks with a grin, "I met my future wife at the Friendship Club, so you never know what could happen."

Friendship Campus Construction Underway

Meanwhile, construction officially began on Monday on the new Friendship Campus in Redondo Beach.

The 3.25-acre campus, centered around a state-of-the-art 64,000-square-foot facility, aims to create a multi-faceted center that will offer a full range of postsecondary training for intellectually and physically diverse students.

The Greenberg Family/Skechers Center, as it is being called, is expected to be completed in 2024 at a cost of $55 million. It will serve as the headquarters for Friendship Foundation’s 50-plus programs, as well as for a transition program for the Redondo Beach Unified School District and other postsecondary vocational programs.

Howorth, whose son Ari led one of the first Friendship Clubs at Manhattan Beach Middle School, said that she had told her son that the construction began on the campus this week. 

"He said, 'You mean that drawing that Yossi would show us and say, 'Some day we are going to have our own building'...?' My son thought it was so remarkable that 15 years ago he had seen a drawing and now it's becoming reality."

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