MATTHEWS – Rabbi Bentzion Groner and his wife, Rochel, came to Charlotte about six years ago hoping to serve the social needs of children with disabilities through the nonprofit, The Friendship Circle.
Bentzion, who is a leukemia survivor, knew he wanted to serve the nonprofit world. He was recruited to serve as the director of The Friendship Circle in New York and said he felt he had a calling to bring the organization to the Queen City. Likewise Rochel, who has a background in elementary education, felt there was an untapped need after working with students with disabilities.
They decided to open up a thrift boutique, ZABS Place, located at 100 N. Trade St., at the corner of Trade and East John streets in Matthews, and hire the young adults they’ve been serving to learn different job skills, such as upcycling, refurbishing, accounting and cashiering, among other skills, and give them a space to be “recognized for who they are.”
“No one was serving that need,” Rochel said. “It was incredible to see the progress of these kids (through) spending time with other children with special needs, with typically-developing kids and just that the lack of friendship that they had to begin was being filled so beautifully that I realized this is where I should be.”
The Friendship Circle coordinates teenagers who volunteer with children with disabilities for social gatherings, such as bowling, crafts, sports and home visits.
Multiple organizations provide medical, educational and therapeutic care for children and teens with disabilities, but they’ve overlooked social opportunities, Bentzion, the nonprofit’s director said. Typically developing children often grow up with many social occasions, but children with disabilities often don’t, so Friendship Circle seeks to fulfill that gap, he added.
“We feel the best way to do that is with high school teenagers,” Bentzion said. “Teens are usually involved in their little bubble. They’re not selfish, but self-absorbed and trying to transition from childhood to adulthood, it’s that perfect opportunity to educate them and help sensitize them with the challenges other people face and make them aware of how to give back to others.”
Bentzion said teenagers benefit from the program by becoming more responsible and self-confident, learning to appreciate others and helping them grow into their adult lives.
Many of the children The Friendship Circle served have grown up and become teenagers, Bentzion said, and while their peers are searching for college options, the children with disabilities don’t have the same opportunities.
About 75 percent of young adults with disabilities live at home without many workforce opportunities compared to 69 percent of their peers who pursue college education and interest-based jobs.
Parents of the children with disabilities approached Bentzion and Rochel for a solution. Some suggested an institution for their children, but the couple had a different vision through ZABS Place.
“These kids are awesome. They have so much to offer. They have so many talents and skills,” Bentzion said. “They’re not going to hold down a job like a typically college graduate, but there’s so much that they have. We wanted to focus more on the productivity – what they can do, what their mission in life could be as opposed to where they’re going to live.”
The couple hopes the thrift store will help the young adults they serve transition into the working world. They’ve found they are looking for ways to be productive, rather than focus on compensation. ZABS Place will serve as a two-year stepping stone for teens with disabilities to learn workforce-ready skills to work at other area businesses.
“We want to demonstrate (to area businesses) the value that they really bring to the table and that it’s worth it for these businesses to hire them,” Bentzion said.
While providing opportunities for adults with disabilities, the Groners want to give shoppers an upscale boutique experience with thrift store prices.
“There are thrift stores where you really have to look hard to find something and it’s not really a pleasant experience. Sometimes there’s a smell, but you get really good deals. You go to an upscale boutique – it’s a great experience, great everything, but it’s very expensive. So we want to bring those two elements together,” Bentzion said, adding an example would be purchasing a $200 pair of shoes for $30. “We have very valuable items that are very unique and like-new or new at cheap prices.”
ZABS Place seeks to give customers a “un-thrift shop” experience.
“We want people to feel that they don’t have to go to a dingy, dark place, but also recognize that the person greeting them and checking them out may have special needs,” Rochel said.
Rochel said that people sometimes identify individuals by their disability, such as referring to someone as “the autistic man” rather than as “a man with autism.” She hopes through meeting more individuals with disabilities , the public will focus on the person rather than their condition.
“You can get 10 people with autism in a room and they’re still 10 people,” Rochel said.
ZABS Place is a donation-based organization named in memory of Zecharya Avraham Boruch Shporer, a Friendship Circle volunteer, who lost his battle to leukemia.
The store will host a ribbon cutting on Wednesday, Dec. 10, at 6:30 p.m. and will be open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Fridays; and noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays.