Eleanor London was first introduced to Reena, which she says, was not even Reena at the time, through her childhood friend Syrma and Syrmas husband Harold Kochberg. At the time Eleanor was very involved with Baycrest and the Hadassah WIZO organization and had just held a very successful event at Yorkdale Shopping Centre that the Kochbergs had attended. “Syrma invited me to a meeting of a group of parents that were trying to raise money to form ‘something’ to help their children. I knew nothing of what they were doing or of Developmental Disabilities, but knew they had a child with problems and was sympathetic to that and agreed to attend the meeting.”
At that meeting, Eleanor says she learned this group of parents has bought furniture and were trying to sell it to earn funds needed to achieve their goals. “When I heard that I was shocked, asking why did you buy it? You could have gotten it on consignment! Rabbi Kelman zt’l was at the meeting and felt I had what this group needed, smarts and sass. I was persuaded to attend another meeting where the idea of “Fun Day” emerged, they asked me to help as I had done a similar event for Hadassah.” And so, Reena Fun Day, a friend and fundraising event was born. With her know-how, Reena never paid for the use of Yorkdale or anything, utilizing donations of any and every kind and relying on the generosity of store owners. “Over the years, so many people were part of this event, not just the families I first met, but so many volunteers and contributors, just helping us to start what is today, Reena,” says Eleanor.
Working with Reena in the early days also gave Eleanor exposure to the grim reality of institutionalization and what she called, “the biggest secret in town…all the people who had been locked up in Orillia”. Reena would bus some Jewish residents from the Huronia Institution in to celebrate Jewish Holidays, and later for a week or two at Camp Reena, but the reality of life at Huronia, which she was witness to, was what she calls her ‘turning point’.
Instrumental in the early years of Reena, Eleanor London, who donated her expertise as a real estate agent, was also a help when it was time to buy a group home. London says they faced unbelievable opposition from the community and neighborhood who did not want a home of “developmentally handicapped people” living next door. “They protested at Pride of Israel, at Rabbi Kelman’s home, breaking windows and throwing bricks. One day over 1500 people showed up at City Hall and became violent, striking many of us,” she says. Eventually she and Sandy Keshen found another house and Eleanor helped facilitate another deal quickly and quietly turning the endeavor into reality.
Eleanor says her work with Reena was made possible thanks to her children and family “who contributed by allowing her to be a part of Reena. Their support of me and understanding of what we were trying to do let Reena go further than any one of us thought possible.”
With Sandy Keshen’s unwavering support and mentorship, Eleanor London’s work with Reena over the years included many roles including three times as Board Chair. After 50 years Eleanor says she is proud of what has become of Reena, “because it was such a struggle for the founders…everything was so difficult,” she says. “I wish that Reena’s history, what we did, all the people who helped with their time, money and support of us, will always be remembered. That no matter, how large an organization Reena grows to be, and I do hope it continues to grow, that Reena holds on to its grassroots feel and stays its own community and the Jewish community be involved in the building and ownership of Reena. That will be our legacy.”