Construction will begin this week as the former Gullifty’s restaurant in Squirrel Hill becomes The Friendship Circle. The multi-million dollar renovation will dramatically expand the building’s floor plan as well as Friendship Circle’s presence in the neighborhood.

Founded in 2006 by Rabbi Mordy Rudolph and his wife, Rivkee, the organization seeks to integrate children and young adults with special needs into the larger community by creating lasting relationships with teens and young adult volunteers.

In the last eight years Friendship Circle has grown from 12 children with special needs and 25 teens to now serving 140 children and 300 teens, straining the current 1,200 square foot offices on Northumberland Street. It was important that the new space, like the organization, connect constituents to the community, says Rudolph.

“To be off the beaten path would be detrimental to what we’re trying to do. It was crucial that we not create another space that is somewhat isolated,” he adds.

Renovations will nearly double the building’s footprint from 5,200 square feet to 10,000. A street-level bank of windows will open the space to the neighborhood. The first floor features a full working kitchen, a multi-use room with a stage, a teen lounge and a gallery space. The second floor offers executive offices, a parent lounge, and work pods to allow constituents with special needs to take an active role in driving the organization. The group is currently analyzing the roof to see if a garden or greenhouse is feasible.

Connecting youth with special needs to the community and vice versa currently manifests through programming—organized cooking classes, art clubs, music and drama clubs—but Rudolph says the activities have always been a means to an end.

“We want kids to build friendships. We’re hoping that with the new building things will happen more organically, so it’s not just project-based. Since it’s so central, members can come by after school and do their homework or play video games and genuinely hang out.”

The building renovations will cost roughly $4 million, money that has already been raised through a capital campaign begun in January of this year. The campaign aims to raise a total of $6 million. Half of the remaining $2 million will create an endowment to pay for the operating costs of the building, the rest for programming.

Architects Perfido Weiskopf Wagstaff and Goettel have made the building fully ADA compliant. Both off-street and metered on-street parking will be available. The project’s construction manager is John Paul Busse of the F.J. Busse Company.

A 50l(c)(3), Friendship Circle pays program fees for its youth and volunteers. Contributions, foundation support and an annual fundraiser comprise the group’s annual operating budget. There is a national affiliation of Friendship Circle organizations but each operates independently.

Margaret J. Krauss is a writer, radio producer, and researcher. If not biking Pittsburgh's streets or swimming its rivers, she is likely geeking out about a really good story.