1973-2023: 50 Years of “Joy”
Our journey is a compelling story filled with pioneers and heroes who fought for the rights of those who cannot fight for themselves.
Our timeline chronicles Reena’s growth from the humble beginnings to one of the largest and most influential support service agencies in the developmental and mental health sector.
Every week this year a captivating new story about Reena’s unique history of leadership, innovation, and compassion will be featured including important milestones, stories of individual achievements and ground-breaking partnerships.
An Intentional Community: Lebovic Campus Reena Community Residence
By 2010 the excitement was literally building for Reena’s new Community Residence on the Lebovic Campus in Richmond Hill. The Sandy Keshen Reena Residence, embodies #inclusion in an environment where people of varied abilities come together to live a meaningful life, connected to their families, friends and neighbours.
Read about how this intentional community came to be and how it provides a home and supports an integrated community where people can live, work and play
An Intentional Community: Lebovic Campus Reena Community ResidenceLocated on the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Jewish Community Campus in Vaughan, Reena’s first intentional community exemplifies inclusion, not only as one of Reena’s core values, but also as a core practice. The residence serves adults and seniors with diverse abilities and sits in the centre of York Regions Jewish community.Sandy Stemp, Reena’s COO, remembers when the 50-acre Campus was just a big field. “When Federation (UJA Federation of Greater Toronto) got that land, right at the beginning Sandy Keshen said, ‘We have to be there’. Sandy was always conscious of the fact that individuals with developmental disabilities were always pushed to the sidelines, and what that meant for housing for our people was not in the nice neighbourhoods with programming in warehouses.”Sandy Keshen’s goal was to show everyone, the Jewish community, and the community at large, that people with developmental disabilities belong and must be included, and the way to do that was to have them there, in the centre of the community.Stemp explains that initially, Reena was one of many partners that were planning for this residential building, however, as the project moved along there were enormous pressures to secure financing, to be able to actually build it. Reena stepped forward as the partner that could keep the project alive.The Sandy Keshen Reena Residence (SKRR), formerly known as the Reena Community Residence (RCR) stands as a shining example of Reena’s first intentional community. A place where young and old could live together, supported by collaborative partnerships with other sector agencies, with safety, dignity, and a greater quality of life.The SKRR is an apartment building with integrated supports that offers residential living, respite, and day programs in one location. Because of the unique blend of residential and day programs, the Residence is a busy place, both day and evening. The main floor offers program rooms, administrative offices, and the services of apartment living, such as a laundry room, Property Management and Superintendent’s office. The many program rooms are heavily used during the day for the Pathways North and Channels Programs where individuals practice life and employment skills.Another unique feature of the building is the Maxwell and Ruth Leroy Holocaust Remembrance Garden with stone panels, which honour the memory of the over 200,000 people with disabilities who were rounded up and killed during World War II. This environment visually and physically welcomes the community into the building, while ensuring that residents and program participants are seen and included in everything we do at Reena. Despite securing Reena’s first million-dollar gift for the holocaust garden, Leon Kieselstein, Past Chair Reena Foundation, says it is he, who is grateful to Reena for everything they’ve done. “My nephew (Daniel Dushensky) spent 12 years of his life at the RCR, and they were the best 12 years of his life.”Mona Sherkin was also involved in fundraising for the intentional community her son Johnny would eventually move into. “What the RCR gave him is everything I had ever hoped for him, because it has given him a community, friends, a place where he belongs,” says Sherkin. While the journey to the residence was not an easy one for either Johnny or his family he has settled in and is thriving. “The Reena building is amazing,” says Sherkin, “…and where they put it? The proximity to the Schwarz Reisman centre…Johnny loves to work out and uses the facilities often.”Mona says what really confirmed that the SKRR was the right place for Johhny was a result of the day when she received a call from staff worried because they didn’t know where Johnny was. Mona admits to becoming frantic but having all her fears calmed once she got a call from her son, who was annoyed to be bothered, as he was in his friend’s apartment playing video games. Mona says she almost cried, “It was the best thing I’d ever heard. He had a friend.”Interested in the rest of the story? Continue the timeline to learn more about Reena’s 50-year history.
Saying Goodbye To Rabbi Kelman z”tl
Visionary, scholar, champion, and humanitarian are just a few of the words used to describe Reena’s founding chair, Rabbi Joseph Kelman z’’tl who was the driving force of the Jewish community’s advocacy work on behalf of individuals with diverse abilities.
In 2009, Reena says goodbye to its spiritual leader and celebrates his life and work. Read about how Rabbi Kelman
Saying Goodbye To Rabbi Kelman z”tl
“He was the conscience of the community.” – Sandy Keshen, Former Reena Executive Director
In 2009 Reena and the whole community mourned the loss of a very special person. Rabbi Joseph Kelmanz’tl, Reena’s Founding Chair, was a pioneer, developing a conviction early in his career that a person with a disability is entitled to the same Jewish experience or a similar one as anyone else.
Rabbi Kelman came to Toronto’s Beth Emeth Bais Yehudah Synagogue in 1959, building the congregation from 50 families to some 800 families by the 1970’s. Well known for his neighbourhood walks where he would ‘schmooze’ with everyone, Rabbi Kelman was always concerned with the wellbeing of others. “He knew everybody,” says son Rabbi Jay Kelman, “everywhere we went he had to stop to see people he knew. If we were going downtown, he had to stop at Mount Sinai to see people who were sick. Every Friday afternoon he would go to Branson hospital and get the lists of who’s in the hospital and go from room to room and talk to them.”
In 1968, a group of parents of children with special needs approached the Rabbi hoping he would help build a school and social club for their children. Rabbi Kelman solicited support from several of his congregants and opened the Ezra and Kadima School and social club for individuals with developmental disabilities. Rabbi Kelman also pioneered a special bar/bat mitzvah program for children with special needs believing that “no one should be left behind”.
In 1973, with Rabbi Kelman as the driving force, the Reena Foundation was established to ‘provide community residences for the developmentally handicapped people of the Jewish faith’. “He saw a need in the community and did his best to fill it…seeking out resources wherever possible-government, personal contacts, other groups inside and outside of the Jewish community, in order to achieve the goal of including disabled members as equals and improving their quality of life,” according to Sandy Keshen.
“His greatest joy was seeing people come from an institution and come to a group home where they could have some dignity and live up to their potential,” says Jay Kelman. “Our greatest success story,” said Rabbi Joseph Kelman, “is that some of our young people have left us to lead independent lives.”
Tributes for Rabbi Kelman were numerous, however some of the most poignant came from parents of Reena supported individuals:
“My personal admiration for Rabbi Kelman is not only for his establishment of Reena, but for his never-ending help and advice to me…He was a source of comfort and advice to me on joyous and heart-rending occasions portraying the remarkable person he was.” -Rochelle Carrady, parent and founding member of Reena.
“Because of Rabbi Kelman’s commitment and dedication to improve the lives of people with disabilities our daughter, Cherie, and hundreds of others have been given the opportunity to live their lives in dignity.”-Marilyn Raphael, Reena parent.
Rabbi Joseph Kelman’s contributions to this world were many. He founded multiple schools, camps, and organizations that cared for developmentally challenged children and adults and helped them connect to their culture. “He succeeded in making a huge difference in the lives of so many,” says son Jay, “and in raising awareness in the Jewish community that everybody should be a part of the community and that everybody is created in the image of god, so everybody is entitled to live life to the best of their ability.”
Interested in the rest of the story? Continue the timeline to learn more about Reena’s 50-year history.
Celebrating Reena/Reena Celebrates
In 2008 Reena celebrated its 35th year of promoting dignity, independence, community inclusion and fun. At Reena accomplishments large and small are not only recognized but celebrated.
Read about how Reena strives to create a social, fun and inclusive environment for all by celebrating birthdays, holidays and each other.
Celebrating Reena/Reena Celebrates
You could say Reena celebrates every single day simply because of the joy brought to so many individuals with diverse abilities who, with Reena’s help, enjoy their independence every day. However, Reena truly does know how to celebrate special events too. From individual birthdays and the opening of new homes to Jewish festivals and individual accomplishments, Reena takes pride in commemorating the moment.
In Jewish tradition, Reena celebrations usually include food and music. “When I joined Reena,” says James Sejjengo, Reena Resource Manager, who has been with Reena for 35 years” every home had something to celebrate, some function. All the homes would visit that home to celebrate a birthday, a BBQ, music night, or movie night.” Different families would come to the home and staff would bring instruments and play music. The effect was sometimes surprising. “Some families members don’t believe that their son or daughter can do certain things like socialize, be happy, dance to music…so when they come to these types of gatherings and see their son or daughter is on the floor dancing, it blows their mind. They never knew they could do that.”
Longtime Reena staff and former CFO Sol Fleising also recalls a time when Reena was smaller, and he would often be asked to step in to lead mock Passover seders and put-up mezuzahs on new homes. “I learned from Rabbi Kelman a few interesting things,” says Fleising, “You don’t just put up a mezuzah… you make a simcha, a party, out of it. So, I would go with a bottle of grape juice (not wine) to make a ‘shehecheyanu’, a blessing, and we would go with a platter of food and a boom box so we could have music and literally dance with the residents when we would put up a mezuzah. It was really a very happy occasion to make people feel how special they were.”
Sol also helped lead the mock Passover seders held annually for Reena supported individuals recalling them as joyous events filled with music and dancing. Another celebration Sol always enjoyed was the annual Purim party, “People would come dressed in costumes. It was very happy. The residents don’t have a chance to do that all the time. It was a once-a-year event that they all looked forward to.”
Arlene Margolese, former Manager of Faith & Cultural Services says the annual Chanukah party was her and her family’s first exposure to the world of individuals with developmental disabilities and it was a bit shocking. “But after many opportunities of involvement with the individuals at Reena (both at celebrations and as invited guests at our home for Jewish Holiday celebrations), my kids began to see beyond the “disability” and to appreciate the distinct personalities of their Reena “friends” who became part of our lives.”
Former Reena Foundation Board Chair Ron Hoffman recalls attending one of his first celebrations with Reena. “I was never really comfortable around individuals with diverse abilities…how do you talk to them? But the truth is you talk to them just like you talk to anyone else!” Hoffman vividly remembers Reena’s Purim party where everyone would come in costume…sponsors, parents, employees, and individuals. “And what I discovered was you could not tell who was who. It was an amazing revelation. The ultimate inclusion…The ultimate way of recognizing that everybody is the same.”
Celebrating accomplishments has also been a big part of Reena. Both for individuals supported by Reena and for employees. Recognition for achievements big and small take place throughout the year including at official recognition events and at unofficial festivities.
Reena celebrations have reached epic proportions for its 50th anniversary. Events planned include a huge kick-off party, a Mental Health Symposium, a Canada-Israel Inclusion Mission, a re-vamped Reena Fun Day and, of course, a Gala event celebrating all the people, both past and present, who have helped Reena become a sector leader in developmental health services.
Tikun Olam: Healing The World
How did a Jewish Agency in Toronto, Canada end up spearheading a project to help an orphanage and school in Islamabad, Pakistan? For Reena, ‘Tikun Olam’, repairing the world, doesn’t just mean in your own neighbourhood.
Read about how Reena’s expertise is sought after as a leader in the developmental sector and how Reena’s reach extends beyond its borders.
Tikun Olam: Healing The World
Reena was founded on the belief that Jews bear responsibility not only for their own moral, spiritual, and material welfare, but also for the welfare of society at large. Tikun Olam literally means to repair the world. While so many organizations are protective of what they do, Reena has always felt that sharing their information can only help. “A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle,” says Laurine Schmelzle, past Reena Board chair, “And if we have no involvement at all, we’ve lit another candle and they can also benefit from what we’ve learned.” Exchanging ideas and sharing information has simply been the way Reena has always operated. First, with other groups and organizations locally, then provincially, nationally, and internationally. The late 1990’ early 2000’s saw Reena travelling the province to help train those working in the sector. Reena, highly respected by the Provincial government in Ontario, has also been asked to represent the sector in Asia, presenting at a conference in Hong Kong.
Reena has also made presentations across the globe in Africa and Europe and, of course, Israel. Reena has a long and deeply committed relationship with the developmental services sector in Israel. Sandy Keshen, former Reena CEO, visited many times helping in the creation of many programs for the developmentally disabled in Israel including Akim, an organization much like Reena that offers inclusion and opportunity in housing, employment, education, and recreation, for people with diverse abilities.
It was around the same time that Reena, once again, demonstrated its leadership in Tikun Olam in, of all places, Islamabad, Pakistan. Ontario’s Minister of Trade, at the time, the Hon. Sandra Pupatello, was on a trade mission to Pakistan. During the mission, Premier Dalton McGuinty’s wife, Teri McGuinty visited an orphanage for developmentally and physically disabled children that was significantly under resourced. Her first assessment was the need for equipment, training of staff and assistance in raising funds to build a new initiative. She related her visit and concern to Councillor David Cohen who was also on the trip. They immediately recommended that Reena should be asked for advice and help.
As former Minister of Community and Social Services, Pupatello was very well acquainted with Reena’s experience and commitment to enhance the lives of people with developmental disabilities. She and McGuinty met with Reena to speak about the dire needs of the orphanage. Without hesitation, Reena agreed to spearhead the project and invited an impressive list of agencies including UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, Canada-Pakistan Business council, The Aga Khan Foundation, Christian Horizons, and others to help raise the necessary funds and resources to aid the orphanage in Pakistan. Under Reena’s leadership they worked to ensure an ongoing viable residential school for children with developmental and physical disabilities in Aslamabad, Pakistan.
A recognized expert in the sector, Reena continues to reach out to the community and beyond to provide up to date information, proactive support, and advocacy for this under supported group. Constantly at the forefront of advocating for the developmental sector Reena’s expertise was also recognized when Reena COO, Sandy Stemp was one of three Canadians invited to a 2016 International symposium in Glasgow, Scotland for dementia and developmental disabilities.
This year, in honour of Reena’s 50th anniversary, Reena is, once again leading the way in Tikun Olam by hosting a Symposium on Mental Health and by hosting the 2nd International Summit on Intellectual Disability & Dementia which is supported by several North American and European organizations.
Integrating Residential Jewish Summer Camps
Providing individuals with diverse needs the opportunity to enjoy the Jewish summer camp experience has been an integral part of Reena’s philosophy from the beginning. From integrating Camp Reena in the 1980’s to helping facilitate the integration of children with developmental disabilities into residential Jewish camps, Reena has always been at the forefront of ensuring inclusion in the Jewish camping experience.
Read about how Residential camp integration began and how it gives individuals supported by Reena the opportunity for personal growth and independence.
Integrating Residential Jewish Summer Camps
When Camp Reena was established near Orangeville in 1975, its mandate was to provide a residential summer experience for developmentally disabled children and adults. However, by 1988, to create a more realistic environment, Camp Reena registration was opened to all children aged 12- to 15-years-old. The goal was to introduce increasing numbers of non-disabled campers into the Reena group in a climate approximating the real world. The mix was rewarding for both populations.
The closure of Camp Reena in 1992 left a void. Adult campers transitioned into Reena’s residential cottage program, and younger campers with diverse abilities returned to day camp programs. But families wanted a Jewish residential camp experience for their children. It was around that time that Reena approached Camp Ramah about starting up a special program. Camp Ramah already had a ‘Tikvah’ program for campers with diverse abilities in the United States. With Reena’s help, Camp Ramah in Canada submitted a proposal to open a Tikvah program in Ontario. “When word got out that Tikvah was going to open in Canada,” says Adam Green, Director of Ramah’s Tikvah Program, “there were many parents and staff who were saying that this program is going to ruin the culture at camp, that they were going to scare away other campers, scare away staff and they should have their own program.” Thirty years later, nothing could be further from the truth.
In 1993 Camp Ramah initiated a Tikvah programs for 18 summer campers aged 12-16 with special needs. The program enabled Jewish adolescents with learning and other developmental disabilities to participate fully with other campers, in the enriching experience of a summer at Camp Ramah including water and land sports, music, dance, fine arts, Judaica education and traditional Jewish living.
Today Camp Ramah’s Tikvah program includes 9 girls and 9 boys aged 12-22. Campers in Tikvah participate in all camp-wide activities, perform in a play, and in a Friday evening Shabbat service. Throughout each day, there are numerous formal and informal opportunities to interact with all campers at Ramah, including “buddy” programs with campers entering Grade 10. Bunk life and various trips provide campers with opportunities to learn skills associated with daily living and to gain independence. Tikvah campers between the ages of 18 – 22 also have vocational opportunities, with an emphasis on developing and improving job skills and independent living skills. Specially trained counselors and senior staff monitor each campers’ needs, from seizures to allergies to mobility issues. There is a 3:1 staff ratio and counselors assist as needed with self-care while a camp doctor, nurse, and Tikvah Directors are on hand to carefully manage health, medical and medication issues.
Reena has also helped with integration programs at other residential Jewish camps according to Ann Szabo, Reena Resource Director, including Camp Northland and Camp Wahanowin. Szabo explains how Reena would bring staff and combine special needs and sensitivity training with camp staff so that they would understand the individuals that were coming up. “Inclusion doesn’t work if the staff don’t work together,” says Ann.
Today, Reena continues to work with Camp Wahanowin bringing small groups of Reena individuals aged 16-30 up to Orillia for 6 days and 5 nights of Jewish overnight camp fun. Housed in their own cabin with staff on a 1:1 or 3:1 ratio, depending on the need, Reena campers integrate into all activities and participate in the camps Shabbat program. Reena Outreach Supervisor Devon Mahadeo says the program gives participating individuals a sense of freedom, a chance to be away from their parents, and a chance to grow. “Some of these individuals had never been away from home and this is their first time…so they gain independence. With the support of staff, they are able to do things that they never thought they would be able to do and accomplish things no one thought they could ever do like jumping on the high ropes, going ziplining, tubing or jumping into the middle of the lake.” Fifteen- and sixteen-year-old Counsellors in Training (CIT’s) who help with the Reena campers enjoy the best opportunity to spend time with them and learn. In fact, according to Mahadeo, many reach out after the program to volunteer with Reena during the year.
The success of Reena’s residential summer camp integration program has Reena looking to expand their partnership with Camp Wahanowin to both include a longer stay for campers and to incorporate employment opportunities with the camp for Reena individuals. Reena also looks forward to creating partnerships with other Jewish camps including Camp George.
Continuing To Age Gracefully: The David & Luba Smuschkowitz Elderhome
After the success of Reena’s first elder home, ground-breaking takes place on the second house in which older individuals with diverse needs, many who have been with Reena for 20+ years, can continue to live at home in independence.
Read about the way even the most medically complex individuals supported by Reena enjoy their retirement.
Continuing To Age Gracefully: The David & Luba Smuschkowitz Elderhome
By 2005, the aging population of Reena supported individuals was both a blessing and a challenge. While individuals were thriving and living longer and more fulfilling lives because of the support from Reena, there were also more supported individuals in need of more specialized elder care. The Al and Faye Mintz Elder home was supporting over a dozen seniors, however there were more who needed the same kind of care.
Enter David and Luba Smuschkowitz, whose generosity and leadership helped raise funds to build a new elder home. The Smuschkowitz’s were committed philanthropists and volunteers in the Jewish community. “As Holocaust survivors,” said David, who along with his wife Luba, was born in Poland, “it’s important to give something back to a country that has been so good to us. My mother and three siblings survived the war because a righteous gentile helped us out. They risked their lives to help Jews and I decided that when I could, I would help out as well.”
The Smuschkowitz Elder Home opened in 2007 and currently houses 11 medically fragile seniors in need of more complex support. Sharon Skyers, Reena Residential Manager, who oversees the Weldrick Road house says it fills a need. “Before this, those with these types of problems would end up in hospital or from a hospital to a long-term care home prematurely.” It is also located near the Schwartz Reisman Centre for easy access to seniors’ day programs, doctors, pools and other facilities. The house has an elevator and has more staff then average in house to monitor the residents. At an average group home support might be 1:5 but at the Weldrick House it is 1:2.” We have people who require a lot of medical assistance, who are aspirating, we have people who are bed bound, so those kinds of things require a higher level of support. Someone could have a seizure, that could turn into pneumonia that could be fatal. …so that kind of monitoring is heightened. Now these things are common, but back then it was like ‘Wow!’“
Mo Lajji, Reena Resource Manager, says the house is similar to a long-term care home, but with special needs. (There are) specially trained people and we have created partnerships with other organizations, so we have nurses come in on a regular basis, so they didn’t have to go out to appointments. It’s one of the advantages of elder homes.”
Despite the challenges, staff try to take residents on a lot of outings including trips to Wasaga beach, baseball games, Kew Beach and even an overnight trip to Niagara Falls. “The goal is always for the supported people to have fun,” says Skyers “and that is the whole thing, to remember to have fun. We know that you’re having medical issues, we know you’re having all of this, but there is still an opportunity to enjoy and have fun.” And staff, she says, are open to anything. “So, we look into it, we research it, like how do we get there? as opposed to just giving up because there is a barrier. Do we need more people? Do we need an accessible vehicle? Let’s go map out the grounds to see that its possible. We’ve even gone to restaurants sand said do you need us to bring a blender, or do you have a blender? It’s a lot of work but for them but the team always says it’s worth it.” Before Covid, Skyers says staff even wanted to take one of the residents who was celebrating her 70th birthday to Jamaica and had researched the trip figuring out all the details, only to have the trip cancelled because of the pandemic.
One of Sharon Skyers most memorable Reena moments happened one day she came to visit the house and it was empty. “There was no one there…they had emptied the house and went to a baseball game. It was amazing! It was amazing to know that everybody was able to go at one time. It was a hard trip, but it was definitely worth it.”
Learning and Development
Reena has always been a leader in developing training for staff and volunteers in the developmental health sector for both its own staff and volunteers, and those from many other organizations. In 2004, the Developmental Disabilities Counsellor Program is re-instated at George Brown College.
Read about how Reena’s Learning and development has grown from the early days to becoming the industry standard and how Reena continues to develop and share new and innovative training.
Learning and Development
From its inception Reena worked diligently to train staff who support individuals with diverse abilities. The early days saw Reena partner with Jewish Vocational Services (JVS) Toronto. The successful relationship worked in developing training programs and sheltered workshops for individuals with developmental disabilities. JVS, which focuses on helping people from diverse backgrounds and needs to identify their strengths and goals, develop skills, and achieve success in school, work and life offered four programs for people with developmental disabilities. The programs provided volunteer opportunities to develop skill sets that could lead to employment. Reena and JVS also worked together with the Jewish and broader community to create volunteer positions for individuals with diverse abilities.
And then Sandy Stemp, Reena’s current COO, who was fresh from a nursing degree and working at Camp Reena at the time, took over. “I was given the opportunity of designing training programs for Reena’s front-line staff, as well as students, by taking community health care principles and applying them to developmental services. Our focus was on health and health education.”
Even before she came, says Sandy, there was an investment in learning and development which was not traditional for the small organization that was Reena at that time. Stemp began to collaborate with behavioural therapist Larry Bowers building courses. “It was a good mesh because we came at things from different perspectives… (we looked at) how do we create courses? Curriculum? Areas where our staff could learn and grow?”
Because Reena had invested significantly in the kind of clinical resources that were focused on education, the two started writing curriculum and would then roll it out through the whole organization, update as needed, and start again. “It took about 10 years of development until we had what we considered a full curriculum. And then we started to reach out to other agencies and collaborate on different training programs.”
One thing became clear…Staffing was a challenge. Community colleges were not graduating staff for the developmental disabilities sector. Reena realized they needed to create a solution. “So, we did a tour of the Ministries within the provincial government for several years to advocate for education for our workers and some solution, and that’s when the Minister finally connected Reena with George Brown College,” says Sandy. Once again Reena was creating new partnerships that had never existed.
The first Developmental Disabilities Counselor Program, originally named the ‘Learn and Earn course’, began in September 2003. Seventeen students from a variety of backgrounds took part. In response to demand, the target group was extended to include personal service workers (PSW’s) and graduates. The students included high school graduates interested in learning about the sector, university graduates wanting to acquire firsthand work experience, and executives making a career change. Upon completion of the course students received a Reena Developmental Disabilities Counselor Certificate and over 90% of graduates found immediate employment in their new career.
The establishment of the DDC raised the bar in the standard of excellence in staff training in the field of Developmental Disability Services. While four other Toronto agencies including Kerry’s Place, Montage Support Services, New Leaf, Living and Learning Together Inc., and the Salvation Army were active partners in the DDC program, Reena carried the leadership role in training making Reena ‘the’ trainer for the Developmental Disability sector in Ontario.
However, Reena’s role is not only to train students entering the field but also to advise schools, faith communities and other agencies, and to train and upgrade skill sets for their staff throughout the province, free of charge. In addition, Reena staff make presentations and lead workshops at Provincial, National, and International conferences and symposiums.
Reena also took the lead and creating professional placements for occupational and physical therapists, speech and language pathologists, nurses, and doctors. A training curriculum was developed to help medical staff understand the needs of individuals with diverse abilities. “All agencies in the developmental sector admire and envy Reena for having a department that is exclusively focused on developing competencies,” says James Sejjengo, Reena Resource Manager.
Reena continues to lead the way in Learning and Development. Today Reena offers 130 different courses and trains five thousand people a year, including both internal staff and staff from 50-external agencies.
Yetta Berg Family Home
In 2003 Reena once again recognized a need in the community and began to work towards filling that need. The Yetta Berg Family Home was built to offer a permanent residential programme for children with autism.
Read about how the Yetta Berg Family home offers families in crisis a haven of support.
Yetta Berg Family Home
Autism is a complex neurological disorder that profoundly impairs the ability to communicate, socialize, and respond to and express emotion. Children affected with autism often engage in repetitive and sometimes self-injurious behaviors. In 2003, Jewish families affected by autism finally had a place to go, thanks to Alan and Judy Berg. The Yetta Berg Children’s Home in Maple was dedicated in loving memory of Alan’s mother and provides a warm and inviting setting for three children with autism. At the dedication of the home a heartfelt thank you to the Berg family was made by Robin and Joe Spataro, parents of a resident of the Berg home. They expressed their gratitude to Reena, the Ministry and to the Bergs for building the home that offered them, and their son Nicholas a safe and nurturing environment.
Families with children affected by this developmental disability are referred to Reena through a case manager and, according to Vanessa Sulaman, Reena Residential Manager, families are generally in crisis. “The crisis is within the home; the families do not have the ability to even go out with the child anymore and what they are seeing is physical aggression, usually towards one parent, and property destruction. And then there is the inability to support through school for long periods of time, so that’s also the struggle that we see, and the families just don’t have the services available to them in order to maintain the care within the home.”
The goal when a child comes in is to stabilize them. An environmental assessment takes place to determine what the child needs to have, or not have, in their environment to add to their success. For example, if there is a child who breaks glass, the windows will be modified. Each child has an individualized program, according to Juliet Dayes, Reena Supervisor, Residential, “Every time we intake a child, the child has different needs, so the program is based on the child’s needs.” Children have come to the home as young as age 8. “These families do not put their children in care lightly,” says Dayes, “This is not an easy decision for them. Every single family we intake is always in crisis and have tried everything they can, and they can’t manage. So, when they decide to put their child in the Yetta Berg Home, it’s a real rough decision for them.” Staffing for a child coming into the home could be 1:1, 2:1 or even 3:1. “ Imagine from a parent’s lens,” says Juliet, “We have a house, we have staff that are trained in behaviour management and all different other trainings and we’re supporting 3:1. And in the family’s home, there are two parents, who are not trained, so you can imagine the trauma that they’re going through with the child living at home.”
Once a child is stabilized, staff begin with outings. They start small, like a trip to the park, and then they move onto something bigger. Family visits, how soon and how often, are determined by the team once a child is stabilized. Outings like movies, swimming, recreational activities, and trips to Niagara Falls, the beach, and even African Lion Safari are possible based on the behaviour of the children. Some children come in with issues that prevent them from learning in a typical school setting, so another goal is to transition them back into the classroom, based on the recommendation from the team. “Dealing with children is more challenging (than adults with diverse abilities),” says Vanessa, “in that you are supporting families, you’re supporting the schools, you’re supporting the clinical team. There are so many components that you don’t see with adults.” It takes a strong team. Staff in the Yetta Berg home undergo extensive training that can take anywhere from 3-6 months to complete and, according to Juliet, like most of the staff that work at Reena, they have a passion for what they do. Once a child ‘ages out’ of the house at eighteen, they are transitioned into other residential accommodations.
“Every single child who’s been through the home has been successful by the time they leave,” says Juliet. “They are stabilized. Their behaviours are minimized…when they come in, they are typically a danger to themselves or others…We do everything we can to ensure their success when they go out.”
With only three rooms in the Yetta Berg Home, there is a waiting list. Options for Jewish families looking for help is limited. In fact, one child waited several years for a placement because the family were looking for a kosher home. But the future looks bright for the Yetta Berg Family Home. Plans are in the works for renovating the home with the addition of another bedroom at the request of the Ministry to be able to accommodate more of the demand.
Striking for Gold: Reena and the Special Olympics
Special Olympics is an international movement with more than 1 million athletes’ participation in over 140 accredited programs on every continent. Its mission is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition for those with developmental disabilities giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and share friendship with their families, other special Olympics athletes and the community.
Read about how Reena has always encouraged team sports for individuals with diverse abilities, and how Reena supported individuals came to compete at the Special Olympics in a variety of sports.
Striking for Gold: Reena and the Special Olympics
It all started with bowling. A weekly bowling program that took place at the Bowlerama on Bathurst Street for individuals with diverse abilities started small and grew. “Bowling is accessible for them…and it’s inexpensive,” says Ann Szabo, Reena Resource Manager who helped run the program in the mid 1990’s. “Bowling was a great social opportunity for our people. We had people who would just come and not bowl, just come and hang out. Make an evening out of it. We always had parties to celebrate birthdays. We would take over the party room once a month and have a pizza party and a cake for everybody who attended bowling and everybody’s birthday would be celebrated.”
In 1998, with some 60-70 bowlers every week, some of them rather good, Reena decided to apply for a Special Olympics team. “At the time,” says Ann, “there was only one Special Olympics team in our region, and they were not very happy when we joined, because they were always winning the gold medals. We applied and became members of Special Olympics and had bowlers who qualified for Nationals, so we got to go across the country competing and have a lot of fun.”
The ‘Reena Raptors’ loved going to competitions, according to Szabo, even though getting ready for competitions meant extra practices for athletes 3-4 weeks before. “One of my favourite stories…we had an individual, he was a two-handed bowler, he would slowly approach the lane, drop his ball, and he would get a strike! No one knew how, but he ended up being a champion bowler who always got gold. But the medals weren’t important to him, he just enjoyed being there and socializing.”
With increased exposure, when partnered with Reena’s evening programs, the league was able to attract many individuals from other agencies and the community. Eventually a basketball team was also formed to take part in the Special Olympics. In 2000, both leagues took part in regional, provincial, and national events with participants very eager and excited to have the opportunity to represent Reena at Special Olympics functions and at the Special Olympic games.
In the summer of 2002, Hayadel “Hyla” Rubenstein brought home the gold. In fact, she brought home three gold medals from the Special Olympics National games held in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Hyla was one of two representatives from the three Toronto teams and the sole champion of the Reena Raptors Ontario Special Olympics bowling league. Today, the medals hang proudly on her wall, and Hyla recalls the great times she had competing with the Special Olympics. “Bowling is fun, you get to meet people …from all over the world.” At age 70, Hyla has some hip problems that prevent her from bowling now, however she still stays active walking several times a week and participating in chair yoga.
In 2010, six athletes from the Reena Special Olympics bowling team traveled to London, Ontario as part of Team Canada to compete at the Special Olympics national games. Hyla Rubenstein was one of them. To date, according to Ann Szabo, Reena supported individuals have won over one thousand medals.
In 2020, the pandemic brought a halt to all team sports, including bowling. The past few unprecedent years have also led to changes within Special Olympics with new opportunities for all athletes to continue to compete and have fun in an all-inclusive environment.
Bowling remains a core recreational activity for Reena supported individuals both on an ongoing basis, and with the annual’ Striking for Reena’ bowling fundraiser that continues to bring out scores of teams to compete, have fun and raise money for Reena and its programs.
Loyalty: Employees who Love their Job
What makes employees want to stay in the same organization for decade after decade? Reena boasts a list of 40+ employees who have worked with Reena for over 25 years.
Read about how and why Reena employees continue to stick around year after year with love and devotion to the individuals and families supported by Reena.
Loyalty: Employees who Love their Job
With over 130 staff members who have dedicated their lives to the service of others for 18 years or more, Reena has been blessed with incredible employees who demonstrate their unwavering commitment, love, and devotion to the individuals and families supported by Reena. “These exceptional individuals form the backbone of our organization,” says Reena CEO Bryan Keshen. “Their dedication, resilience, and loyalty have played a pivotal role in shaping Reena into what it is today. They have witnessed the growth, the challenges, and the triumphs of our organization, and their invaluable contributions have left an enduring mark on the lives they came across.”
Arlene Margolese, former Volunteer Coordinator, worked for Reena for 26 years, first under the supervision of Sandy Keshen and then Bryan Keshen and says that the support she got from Sandy helped her grow not only professionally, but personally as well. “I had the most phenomenal, forward-thinking boss in Sandy Keshen. Sandy was a true visionary with incredible ideas and leadership abilities. She allowed us to grow, giving us opportunities to develop skills we never knew we possessed. She was my leader and my mentor.” Arlene says when Bryan Keshen took over, he, too, was always there for staff with an approachable attitude and a guiding hand. “Working may not be the accurate word to describe my life at Reena because Reena was such a huge part of my life. I love everything about Reena – the individuals, the staff, the camaraderie. You could say that we may leave Reena, but Reena will never leave us.”
Ann Szabo, Reena Resource Manager, who has been with Reena for 35 years agrees that Sandy’s influence made Reena a wonderful environment for employees. “Sandy’s greatest accomplishment is the fact that so many of us are still here,” says Ann. “She has affected people so much that they have made Reena their life, their job for most of their adult life. She engendered loyalty…and that’s a really important thing…honesty, truthfulness and loyalty.”
“I felt very valued right from the start,” says Mohamed Lajji, Reena Resource Manager, who has been with Reena for 35 years. “The people that I’ve worked with have always been very supportive and very caring…they’ve been great mentors, great leaders and great colleagues.” That support was especially meaningful after the events of 9/11. “Being a Muslim guy working in a Jewish agency sometimes, there is a feeling, you’re always conscience about who you are, and what your name is, your appearance.” He remembers a board meeting where he had to make a presentation, after the meeting Sandy Keshen pulled him aside and asked him how he was given the events of 9/11. “She was sensitive enough, kind and caring and talked to me about it…To do that for me spoke not only speaks volumes about her but about the organization as well. We are a diverse group and no matter who you are or what you are as far as your ethnicity, your religion, your culture, at the end of the day we are all one and it felt really special to be reassured.”
The dedication and hard work of Reena’s loyal employees have been instrumental in the continuous growth and success of Reena as a leading organization in the Developmental Services Sector. “I was given the autonomy and trust by my managers,” says Sandy Toben, Supervisor, Learning and Development who is working on her 39th year at Reena. “They were always supportive to carry out what needed to be done and get it accomplished – for me that is so important as an employee – trust, flexibility and being valued (by my manager) has kept me at Reena for 38 years.”
Sol Fleising spent 33 years at Reena, many as it’s CFO, and says the dedication and commitment of Reena’s exceptional staff is what stands out to him. “It is through their selfless interactions and tireless efforts that I have witnessed firsthand the remarkable difference they make in the lives of Reena individuals and their families. Their resolute support and genuine care are the cornerstones of our organization’s success.” For Sol, the opportunity to make a difference was fulfilling, “It’s not every job that you have a chance to not just put a widget on a shelf or make a balance sheet balance, we had the opportunity to help the lives of people who couldn’t help themselves. So that was very special for me, and I was very fortunate.”
Over the past 50 years there have been many efforts to recognize and show appreciation to Reena’s staff, whose dedication has shaped Reena into the thriving community it is today. However, this year, in honour of Reena’s 50th anniversary and to commemorate this significant milestone, employees with over 18 years of service had their names inscribed on a beautiful staff recognition wall at the newly named Sandy Keshen Community Residence (formerly known as the Reena Community Residence, RCR), symbolizing the organization’s profound appreciation for their tireless dedication to Reena and the individuals Reena supports.
The staff recognition plaque stands as a symbol of the compassion, hard work, and continuous support that have left an indelible mark on the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities and their families and will stand as a sign of their tireless efforts and the invaluable contributions they have made in enriching the entire community.
The Art of Reena
Art has always been a way for people to express themselves. The same is true for individuals with diverse abilities. Reena has always nurtured art as a way for individuals to celebrate the world and their place in it.
Read about how Reena has encouraged and utilized art throughout the years from everything to art shows and greeting cards to inspiring artwork and murals in homes and residences.
The Art of Reena
“Art is an expression….it is you…you don’t have to explain it.”-Mohammad Laljii, Reena Resource Manger
Art is an expression of our thoughts and emotions through a physical medium, like painting or sculpture. For Reena, art has always provided a way for individuals with diverse abilities to share their way of experiencing the world and to communicate their personality in a way that words don’t or can’t. For those who can’t express themselves in any other way, it is essential.
“Thirty years ago, there was the Art Institute on St. Clair Avenue, and I used to take individuals for art therapy programs,” says Ann Szabo, Reena Resource Manager, “It’s interesting because it was always the individuals with the most complex disabilities who would attend because they got the most out of it because it was often the only way they could express themselves.” A trained Art Therapist would try to interpret what the individuals were trying to express, and according to Szabo, it helped the staff to better understand individuals, to learn to communicate with them better. “Because when you are profoundly disabled and you are actually nonverbal you really, really struggle with how to communicate with that person,” says Szabo who worked with individuals in need of more complex support as a frontline worker for her first years at Reena and loved it. “To me it was like being a detective, it was a mystery…trying to solve who they were, and how they were trying to communicate.”
By the mid-1980’s artwork by some of Reena’s supported individuals was being produced at the Reena Cartwright Resource Centre and being sold to visitors to the centre. A wide range of articles including T-shirts, sweatshirts, gift tags and cooler bags were designed and individually splash painted in bright colours. The artwork continued to be sold at The Toby and Henry Battle Developmental Centre gift store along with other brightly coloured merchandise including hand painted silk scarves, t shirts and pottery all made by individuals supported by Reena.
In 1992 Reena hosted a public exhibition and set out to challenge traditional ways of viewing individuals with diverse abilities. ‘Vision’ aimed to enhance the community’s appreciation of the achievements and untapped talents of Reena supported individuals. The exhibit, held at the Jewish Community Centre on Bathurst Street, had more than 70 works of art in a variety of media, including painting, drawing and sculpture and was a huge success.
Over the years there have been all kinds of art projects at Reena including individual works of art, murals and more. One of the most recent art projects grew out of a partnership between the Schwartz/Reisman Centre and the Reena Community Centre. The Art Mentorship program brought in visiting artists to work with Reena supported individuals in a variety of mediums culminating in an art show and auction at the end of the year. “The Art mentorship program attracted some donations from the city of Vaughan, the Kazman family, and support from the community,” says Judy Katzberg, Reena Direct Support Supervisor, “The art mentorship program became an opportunity for the community to come in…we would invite people like firefighters and police who do trainings and discussions with our individuals about safety, and they would get to see the other side of who the individuals were. We wanted to change the name of it to Artists first, because, as one individual said it best, ‘I love this program because I am an artist before I am my handicap.”
Another unique opportunity for Reena supported individuals to express themselves came through The Brain Project, a Toronto wide art exhibit created by the Baycrest Foundation to raise awareness and inspire conversations about brain health with Canadians. The Brain Project engages artists from across the globe, both established and emerging, to design and create one-of-a-kind sculptures that are displayed throughout the city and are available for purchase. In 2018 Reena supported individuals worked together to design a brain with a wheelchair branching off into leaves to represent that those with diverse abilities are just as capable as everyone else.
The importance of the role of art continues to be seen at Reena from the inside out. From the artwork on the walls of offices, group homes and community residences, to the murals found adorning the vans that transport Reena supported individuals to and from the activities of their daily lives. Art remains one of the best ways for individuals with diverse abilities to express themselves and their world view.
While the pandemic brought a halt to many of the art programs including the Art Mentorship Program, plans are in the works to re-establish the program soon.
Leading The Way: The Ontario Partnership on Aging and Developmental Disabilities
In 1999, in honour of Reena’s 25th anniversary, the first symposium on aging and developmental disabilities was held. Some 25 years later, Reena is still an integral part of the Ontario Partnership on aging and developmental disabilities.
Read about how Reena came to lead the way in developing partnerships between the developmental sector and other various supports and services for seniors.
Leading The Way: The Ontario Partnership on Aging and Developmental Disabilities
In 1970, the average age of death of an individual with diverse abilities was 35. By 1999, however, the average age of a Reena supported individual was 50. With Reena’s population growing older, there was a focus on how to advocate for people who had never gotten older in the past. In 1999, the United Nations International Year of Older Persons, Sandy Stemp, Reena’s COO and Sandy Keshen, Reena’s CEO, received a small regional grant to talk about how to support the aging population of people with developmental disabilities. The seeds planted by this small grant eventually grew into a provincial initiative that has resulted in the creation of countless innovative, cross-sectoral programs and models of support between developmental services and the range of senior services across the province.
In 1999, an international conference was planned as the culminating event of a year celebrations in honour of Reena’s 25th anniversary. The goal was to learn from experts and researchers about current findings and information on aging and developmental disabilities, learn about the key sectors who support older adults and seniors with developmental disabilities, identify issues facing each of these sectors and explore ways of working together. The conference attracted more than 50 speakers and close to 400 participants from many countries. “We had speakers and attendees from across north America,” says Gerald Hartman, past Chair, Reena Foundation, “From Israel, from a number of other countries and it was an extraordinary opportunity for Reena to demonstrate just how forward thinking and unique some of its approaches and programs were in comparison to what existed out there.”
The multi-day event included keynote speakers, plenary sessions and many workshops dealing with every aspect of life for people with developmental disabilities and their communities including legal rights, the importance of faith and ethics, quality of life, medical needs and educational possibilities “What was significant about the conference to me,” says Gerald, “is that from a service standpoint, the rest of the sector and the government really got a sense that we were not simply following a well-established playbook, we were really willing to look at other avenues of succeeding where there was a need… It really helped solidify the leadership role that Reena provides.”
Inspired to build upon their accomplishments, the Reena team armed with the information from the planning and designing of programs for seniors with developmental disabilities that had taken place in preparation for Reena’s new Faye and Al Mintz Reena EdlerHome, set out to expand the plan to include seniors across the province. This, in turn, led to the highly successful Symposium on Aging and the creation of the Ontario Partnership on Aging and Developmental Disabilities (OPADD). “One OPADD initiative, according to Sandy Stemp, involved doing four conferences in one week in three different venues in four different regions., educating close to 1000 people on aging and developmental disabilities in one week. “Suddenly we looked around us,” says Sandy, “and there were provincial organizations from social services, from health from long term care, from gerontology and from education and they said to us, you’ve got to do this work and we will help you.”
A forum on Aging and Developmental Disabilities was conceived to provide for this ongoing process. The mission was to ensure that the general and specific needs of aging, as experienced by people with developmental disabilities living in Ontario, are identified, and addressed effectively.
The forum subsequently evolved and in 2004 the Ontario Partnership on Aging and Developmental Disabilities (OPADD) was formed and brought together service providers, government policy makers, planning and research communities from the developmental and long-term care sectors in Ontario to ensure the developmental disability population receives the same health services and supports as all older Ontarians. Recognizing that each sector holds part of the answer to the question of how to support quality of life for older adults with a developmental disability, the group is active in the areas of cross sector planning, applied research, caregiver education and innovation in service delivery and policy development. Participants in the partnership include the continuum of seniors supports and services, developmental service providers, government, educational organizations, regional and local projects.
Dedicated to ensuring quality of life for older adults with developmental disabilities through transition planning that includes equal access to seniors’ community and residential programs, OPADD continues to focus their work on achieving that vision.
Aging Gracefully: The Al & Faye Mintz Reena Elderhome
In 1998, one third of individuals supported by Reena were 50 years old or older. Knowing that most nursing homes and residences for the elderly do not meet the needs of seniors with developmental disabilities, Reena recognized the need to address the issue.
Read about the first Reena Elderhome and how it was the first of several projects aimed at dealing with the aging population.
Aging Gracefully: The Al & Faye Mintz Reena Elderhome
People with developmental disabilities tend to age prematurely. In fact, the frailties, and limitations that might normally be associated with a 65-year-old are the realities for a 50-year-old with developmental disabilities. As we age, we all would like to enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle, including individuals with diverse abilities. Providing the right to age with dignity in the community with access to leisure activities, became the focus for Reena.
There were discussions going on at board levels about how Reena clients were living longer,” says former Reena Board Chair Harley Mintz, “and we didn’t have a facility to deal with older Reena clients…so we decided we would build elder homes. I volunteered to help build the first one.” Mintz chaired the gala dinner honouring his parents, and the Al and Fayel Mintz Elderhome was on its way to becoming a reality.
Despite lengthy and difficult negotiations with City of Vaughan over the design of the Elderhome, a building permit was finally issued, and construction began on the Al and Faye Mintz Reena Elderhome, catering specifically to the needs of older adults with developmental disabilities. Built in Thornhill near the Toby and Henry Battle Developmental Centre, the Elderhome was the first of its kind in Canada. The specially equipped, 9000 square foot wheelchair accessible residence was designed to blend in with the neighbouring homes in the community. However, it not only featured an elevator and other comforts for its 16 residents, but it also allowed for aging individuals with diverse abilities to grow old with dignity in their own community. Residents of the elder home receive specialized care by professionals trained to deal with the dual challenge of a developmental disability and the physical and cognitive impairments associated with normal aging. The close proximity of the Crestwood Rd. house to the Toby and Henry Battle Developmental Centre was also key as it allowed residents to easily attend recreational and day programs nearby.
Once again, Reena found itself at the forefront of helping those with developmental disabilities. This time the goal was to help them age gracefully. “The first building I built (for Reena) was the Al Faye and Mintz Elder home,” says Harold Seidel, long-time Batay Reena Chair, “which was the first of its kind in the world. We had people from Germany and Hong Kong coming to see it.” Seidel, who has worked with Reena for almost 30 years says he’s seen, firsthand, the impact Reena has had not only on the individuals, but also the families. “It’s the family’s piece of mind that they’re loved ones are being taken care of.” Harold also recalls the effect his work with Reena had on his own family. “So, while I was planning the Reena Elder home, my wife and I received a call one afternoon from my youngest daughter’s public school asking if we would come to school the next day for an awards presentation where our daughter would receive an award for helping out every lunch in the special needs class. She saw what I was doing and felt it important for her to help out too.”
Harley Mintz says it still gives him a sense of pride when he drives by the Elderhome named for his parents, “We would drive by as it was being built and “shep a little nachas”, and even now we take tours and see what’s missing there…like new rugs. We kind of feel like it’s our responsibility to make sure it’s looking and operating the way it should.”
The Al and Faye Mintz Elder Home was the first, but not the last Elderhome built for Reena supported individuals and was home to Henry Edsonz”l, one of Reena’s first clients, who was able to enjoy his senior years in comfort after spending 27 years institutionalized.
Extending Our Reach: Reena Resource Office
In 1997, Reena hit another milestone opening the Reena Resource Office to address the growing waiting list of families in search of assistance.
Read about how Reena began reaching out to families in a different way by connecting them to resources and how Reena has continued to improve upon the way it assists families and individuals with diverse abilities.
Extending Our Reach: Reena Resource Office
By 1997 Reena was serving more and more individuals with diverse abilities but there were still many more who needed help. While unable to house all those in need, Reena’s strategic vision helped develop a better way to help families plan and forge a path forward. The Reena Resource Office, which officially opened in 1996, connected families and individuals with a Reena Resource Manager, who helped them navigate short- and long-term planning for their family member with developmental disabilities.
The Resource office, which became a key component of Reena’s future relationship with families, was first headed by community outreach coordinator, Brenda Rothenberg. “As calls came in, families would meet with a resource manager who would assign the family to a Reena supervisor,” says Rothenberg, “Then the families and Reena would begin the planning process. If Reena could not provide support to the family, we connected them to other resources within the community.” The Resource Office worked with families on Reena’s waiting list and with others in the community who were caring for their children at home. As Reena continued to grow, the Resource Office eventually became the Client and Family Services department and remains the first point of contact for entry into Reena programs.
While Reena could not offer housing to all those in need, as an ever-growing waitlist could attest to, they could offer day programs to individuals with diverse abilities in the community. Historically, day programming was primarily work oriented, however, Reena’s philosophy of adapting to meet the need of the individual allowed the outreach program to evolve into three main areas. The first, Community Networks, provided job placement in the community compatible with the interests and career goals of the individual including opportunities in food services, retail stores, warehouse work and the grocery industry. The second program focused on work options, which offered on-site and off-site contract work and volunteer work, giving individuals the chance to give back to the community in which they live, and to learn skills that may lead to future work options. The third main area, Community alternatives, offered individuals with diverse abilities an opportunity for self-expression and social and emotional development through a variety of leisure and learning activities such as dance, music, drama, art, and community outings.
While the newly built Toby & Henry Battle Developmental Centre would be the focal point of job training programs, daytime activities, and social gatherings, Ann Szabo, Reena Resource Manager says Outreach was fashioned after the camp experience. “It was meant to be hands on, very life skills but fun. It’s also a great way to be introduced to Reena because it’s for families who don’t have services and was meant to give them an opportunity for a break…for respite.” In fact, many of the program participants end up becoming lifelong members of Reena because a lot of people who are coming through for residential placements and day program placements are people that came through outreach, according to Szabo.
As Reena continued to grow and change, so too, did Outreach. The Pathways and Channels program, developed circa 2009, have had incredible growth, according to Szabo. “Pathways is a day program for people who live in the community and are looking for activities that keep them engaged and, in the community, including finding employment in the community. We started out with 6 people, then we added Channels. Channels are for people who are more independent. It was meant for a way for those individuals moving into independent living to develop life skills etc. Now we have 45 people.”
Not everyone is looking for employment. According to Szabo, a lot of the people are looking for socialization, meaningful activities during the day with peer groups, where they can develop and grow because a lot of them have the intention of moving out of their family homes into their own places so it’s a lot of life skills, prevocational, and socialization. “Everything we do is about life skills, but we also have community participation or day programs services that we offer everywhere including the Battle centre, and Lou Fruitman Community Residence.”
Reena’s Outreach program began with a budget of $7000. Today, the program has grown in leaps and bounds and has a budget of over $400,000.
Preserving Our Culture: Faith Alliance Group
In 1996 Reena helped establish the Faith Alliance Group to ensure that the faith and cultural aspects of agencies like Reena are recognized and maintained by the government.
Read about how the Faith Alliance group was just one of many efforts that Reena has been a part of to support families and individuals’ rights to select and receive services that reflect their faith and cultural values.
Preserving Our Culture: Faith Alliance Group
Reena has always had an unwavering commitment to promote dignity, individuality, independence, personal growth, and community inclusion for people with diverse abilities within a framework of Jewish culture and values. Rabbi Joseph Kelmanzt”l, Reena’s founding chair, was the first to recognize the importance of maintaining the Jewish culture, traditions and spiritual well-being of the individuals in service throughout the organization while being open and welcoming of individuals from diverse backgrounds and religious affiliations. To respond, Reena established itself as a Faith-Based developmental services agency with a Faith and Culture Services department.
In 1996 the threat of government cutbacks had Reena fearing that agencies with distinctive ethnic differences might be under the gun. As a result, Reena partnered with other Faith-based Developmental Services agencies that provided services in a unique, ethnoculturally diverse way. To ensure that the faith and cultural aspects of the agencies were recognized and maintained by government, Reena helped to establish the Faith Alliance Group.
Like minded faith-based agencies such as Christian Horizons, Meta, Vita, Mary Bethesda Centre, and L’Arche began to work together to impress upon the government, in a strong and united way, that there was an overwhelming need for ethnocentric services. The network met periodically to discuss issues like how to best support families and individuals’ rights to receive services that reflect their faith and cultural values and how to educate and advocate for individuals with diverse abilities within a faith or cultural context.
The Faith Alliance Group also prompted many partnerships within the sector. Reena proudly helped Roman Catholic, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese and other communities establish their own social agencies. The Faith Alliance Group paved the way for other multi-faith collaborations including the Multi Faith Inclusion Network, which offered seminars and symposiums on accessibility, and today’s incarnation of The Faith and Culture Inclusion Network.
Today, working with other ethnocentric service providers is a means to accomplish Reena’s strategic goal of fostering meaningful social inclusion and engagement by cultivating an environment that encourages social, cultural, and religious participation for individuals of all abilities. “We are different organizations throughout the province of Ontario,” explains Nicole Lipsey, Reena Resource Manager of Faith and Culture, “and we talk about how we make sure and advocate and educate our families and staff about different cultures and how to support individuals with their faith.” Reena also helps other organizations accommodate the needs of Jewish individuals, as they receive help to accommodate the needs of those supported by Reena who are not Jewish. As Lipsey recalls “Somebody called me from another organization and told me that a Jewish individual had passed away and asked ‘What do I do? What customs?’” So, she connected them with a Jewish funeral home and the local Chabad. Reena also has a designated Rabbi to consult with regarding Jewish customs, traditions especially surrounding the Jewish holydays.
Arlene Margolese, Former Reena Manager of Faith & Cultural Services also created different staff trainings on topics that included Judaic Training, Grief & Bereavement, Faith & Culture, “As a Jewish agency, I loved helping our individuals develop their knowledge base and pride in their faith, culture and heritage and in teaching staff about Judaism – always with a respectful attitude towards their own beliefs.” Today, according to Nicole Lipsey, the Faith and Cultural Services Department provides all homes and residences with supplies and Judaic ritual items for Jewish holidays including education, activities, and, of course, food like hamantaschen for Purim and sufganiyot (donuts) for Chanukah. “That’s a new practice…A lot of staff team don’t come from a Jewish background but really embrace it, so we try to bring it to them…so that we provide a safe environment for everybody to learn what they need to learn in order to be comfortable with their faith.”
Reena continues to work to ensure each and every individual in service, regardless of their background and religion, has a meaningful, creative and spiritual experience both at the agency and in the community. Further, Reena continues to be a leader in the faith-based developmental services sector playing an active role in advocacy and education as well as deepen its knowledge and expertise through the different community partner networks.
Community Integration: The Toby And Henry Battle Developmental Centre
Toby and Henry Battlez’’l wanted individuals supported by Reena to have access to facilities that their daughter’s with developmental disabilities did not have. The Battle centre was the first facility of its kind in Canada to offer integrated special needs services.
Read about how their generous donation built a centre that offers daytime social and recreational activities for individuals with diverse abilities and learn how the Battle centre was Reena’s next step in working to integrate individuals into every aspect of community life.
Community Integration: The Toby And Henry Battle Developmental Centre
The building of the Toby and Henry Battle Developmental Centre represented a huge moment for Reena and for the entire developmental health sector. Building on Reena’s work in group home care and assistance in workplace training, the Battle Centre was built for community participation, with integration as its focus.
The $6.2 million centre offers daytime social and recreational activities for individuals with diverse abilities in a 45,000 square foot facility which includes a gym, creative arts room, greenhouse, and multi propose room, and sits right in the middle of a busy residential neighbourhood. “It was very important (for Sandy Keshen) that it be in the centre of Thornhill, not in the warehouse area, or away from the hub of the activities that are part of who we are and what we should be doing,” says Sandy Stemp, Reena COO. “Before the Battle Centre, people with developmental disabilities who were in day programs were housed in warehouses,” she says, “So it was a really big move, when we built this building on a main street, front facing, big and blue…very controversial at the time, and Sandy Keshen said, ‘We are going to be at the centre of the community, we’re not going to hide away in the back warehouse alleys. We’re going to put our name out there. We want the community to know who we are. That’s what inclusion is all about, it’s about being in the centre of the community.’”
Toby and Henry Battle wanted Reena’s clients to have access to facilities that their daughters with developmental disabilities did not have. Sara and Miriam were born in the 1930’s and lived their entire lives at home, with their parents, at a time when institutionalization was the norm and day programs were virtually non-existent. The Battle’s dreamed that one day, people with developmental disabilities would have a place to go where they could feel comfortable, socialize, and learn new skills…the kind of place their daughters Sara and Miriam never had.
The Battle bequest of $3.2 million helped build the centre that now houses programs designed to encourage greater independence for individuals with developmental disabilities through freedom of choice and the ability to develop relationships in a warm accepting environment. The move to the Battle Centre, as it became fondly known, was “huge” according to James Sejjengo, Reena Resource Manager, “When we first walked into the building we said, “This amount of space, what are we going to do with it? Coming from one floor of offices and space for a day program…to a huge building that had all this space was wonderful.” But it wasn’t just a matter of space, which of course, didn’t take too long to fill up, says James, “The Battle Centre meant a lot to Reena in terms of image. From the Dufflaw office to the Battle Centre was like day and night. People would look at it and say what is that? Is it an institution? A school?”
It wasn’t just the building that was attractive, it was what was going inside as well says Lorne Sossin, Reena parent and former Reena Board Chair, “The first time we brought our daughter to the Battle Centre for a camp program, we walked into the building, and you could hear basketballs bouncing and laughter from the gym, and there were people gathering for a birthday party in one part of the building and a class going on in another room. And it was just a wonderful sense of belonging. The minute we walked through those doors it felt like everyone was there for us…. we could be ourselves in a way that wasn’t true for most settings we walked into…. a sense of inclusion and belonging and family from the first second we walked into that place is something I will remember for a long time.”
Today, the Battle Centre houses a variety of programs including Sunday Friends Club, After School, Winter and March Break camps, summer camp, Café Lundi and Basketball. The gym is used to facilitate sports-based activities as well as Reena’s Special Olympics Basketball Team. During the winter months this room is used to partake in activities that otherwise would be held outside. Staff training, orientation and planning sessions are also held at the Battle Centre as are numerous other public meetings, celebrations, and events.
Most importantly, the Toby and Henry Battle Developmental Centre remains a shining example to the world of what can be done when community inclusion is truly the goal. For Reena, the centre set the bar high for the next community-based project and all those that have come since.
Reena Responds To The Aging Population
Recognizing the reality of the aging population of individuals with diverse abilities Reena, once again, begins planning for the future needs of those whom they support.
Read about the development of programming for older individuals in its various forms and how it eventually led to Reena’s first Elder home.
Reena Responds To The Aging Population
The average life expectancy for people with a developmental disability in 1931 was 22 years, compared to 62 years for the general population. Today, thanks to de-institutionalization and better healthcare, the average life expectancy is 70 years for most people with developmental disabilities, quickly approaching that of the general population. However, individuals with developmental disabilities tend to age faster and in a different way than others, so a senior with a developmental disability can be someone who is only 45 or 50 years old. “People that we were supporting were getting older,” says Sandy Stemp, Reena COO, “We focused in on how do we really advocate for people who had never in the past gotten older…no one was prepared or knew how to support them well.”
In 1994 Reena was running its first program designed specifically for older adults called Micha. The successful program started in midtown Toronto at an Eglinton Avenue space, moved to the Battle Centre in 1996, and eventually moved to the Schwartz Reisman Centre where a special suite was designed specifically for them. But back in 1994, Reena started to realize the people coming to the Micha program were getting older, as were those across the system. “And we started to ask what happens when they can’t come anymore, because they’re getting older,” says Stemp, “then what? What do we do? What is retirement? How do we help people age?” Stemp began planning and designing programs for seniors with developmental disabilities and putting some serious thought into the Faye and Al Mintz Reena Elder Home, which was in the works at the time. Armed with funding from Health Canada, Reena decided to take on the project in a big way. “We held a local symposium and invited leaders, key people from health, and from education and social services to talk about aging and developmental disabilities.”
In June 1994, more than 100 senior administrators from the long-term care and developmental disabilities sector attended Reena’s Aging and Developmental Disabilities Symposium at the Toby and Henry Battle Developmental Centre. The keynote speaker was Dr. Lillian Thorpe, a geriatric psychiatrist with a special interest in intellectual disabilities and an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan. The Symposium provided a forum for participants to discuss issues and look at future planning. The goal was simple; to increase awareness of the issues of aging and developmental disabilities, and to examine possible partnerships and collaboration between the two sectors. It was a unique, exciting, and most productive event that would have far fetching affects.
Reena’s advocacy was met with a great response. Many provincial associations that helped seniors were at the conference and wanted to continue the work so a follow up meeting was set. In fact, the success of the Aging and Developmental Disabilities Symposium led to the creation of the Ontario Partnership on Aging and Developmental Disabilities OPADD a few years later.
Today Reena has three senior home locations across the Greater Toronto Area which provide a safe and comfortable space with large common areas for meaningful activities geared toward engaging the individual. There are specialized lifts and transfers for support, full wheelchair accessibility, assistance with meal preparation and special diets, as well as high staffing ratios.
Reena continues to lead the way in ensuring safe, affordable and accessible housing and programs for seniors with developmental disabilities.
Building The Future: Batay Reena
Providing low rent accessible housing for Reena supported individuals has always been at the forefront of Reena’s work. 1993 not only marked Reena’s 20th anniversary, but it also marked the establishment of Batay Reena, a new building arm for Reena.
Read about how Batay Reena’s leadership literally paved the way for many new Reena homes, community residences and facilities.
Building The Future: Batay Reena
Batay Reena was established in 1993 as the housing arm of Reena to provide affordable living for adults with developmental disabilities. Accessing suitable housing where both the landlord and other tenants understand and are sensitive to their special needs has always been one of the difficulties encountered by individuals with diverse abilities. Batay Reena’s mission was to alleviate some of these difficulties by providing community based rental accommodations, establishing partnerships with tenants in housing initiatives, and facilitating linkages to community activities.
“If you think about the skill set needed to manage properties and develop properties,” says Reena CEO Bryan Keshen, “they’re very different from skill set for providing services. Batay Reena exists to utilize this different skill set on a governance level that is independent of the service and operations.”
Danny Ianuzziello, Batay Reena’s first Board Chair, brought his experience as a real estate broker to the table. Danny first became involved with Reena in 1990 as a family member to an adult with a developmental disability, but quickly put his skills to committee work. Later, as Chair of Batay Reena, Ianuzziello was involved in the creation of Reena’s first home for seniors with diverse abilities, The Faye and Al Mintz Elder home. The unique project was a memorable one for Danny, “Reena was, and probably still is, ahead of their time, in terms of some of the things that they were thinking about, and it allowed people like us to try and accomplish things. We had a good group of people around the table that were well versed in different areas that helped you move forward with some of those challenges.”
One of Batay Reena’s first undertakings was the construction of a 24-unit housing project in North York before moving on to tackle the challenge of larger residences. In the early years, Reena would purchase existing houses and renovate to their needs. While the organization grew quite successful at it, the population was changing and there was such a demand for housing that Reena wanted to get into the development business. The Batay Reena Board was made up of lawyers and planners and designers and experts in the industry.
“Building a house or apartment building for Reena is not like building for any other use,” says Harold Seidel, current Batay Reena Board Chair, “Each house is like a snowflake, it’s different depending on the population we are designing for.” Once the Board gets a request from staff for a need for a certain type of residence, they will go search out a site, negotiate the purchase, undertake the development planning with staff and oversee construction of the building. “We build much higher than the Ontario code,” says Seidel, “We build for durability and low maintenance.
Reena homes encounter problems you wouldn’t encounter everywhere. “There was an individual who, if there was a paint chip on the wall, would peel off the whole wall, so we have to build homes to withstand that kind of wear and tear. We build long term; every one is different and the planning that goes into it with staff is amazing. A normal house to build in a subdivision might be $120/square foot, we’re spending $600-700/square foot.”
Sandy Stemp, Reena COO says, “Reena has always embraced complexity and continues to try to understand how best to meet the needs of our individuals and their families.” And those needs are changing, she says. “Now we have to design, create and start developing things that will meet niche populations. When we move, for example, the Elderly we support from a home to a community residence where there are no stairs, and it is accessible, what do we do with stand-alone house? The cost of putting low maintenance clients in detached homes is way too expensive. Now we create totally specialized environments for the houses. Basically, building for the individual cases.”
Batay Reena has also undertaken the successful development and building of not one, but two intentional communities for individuals with diverse abilities. The Reena Community Residence, which opened in 2012 and is home to 84 adults with developmental, physical and/or mental health needs and the Lou Fruitman Reena Community Residence which opened in 2021 and, has become one of the leading examples of integrated housing and support services for 138 adults with disabilities.
Batay Reena is currently working on several projects including the new Frankfort Family Reena Residence in upper Forest Hill. “The Frankfort project is a 75-million-dollar project,” says Harold Seidel, “double the price of the Fruitman project. Construction costs have gone up, and it’s a different kind of site that will require difficult construction. And then we’ll start looking for more. Bryan is always thinking about the future.”
The Re-Birth Of Reena Foundation
In 1992, as the organization continues to grow, the decision is made to restructure. The service arm officially becomes Reena, with Reena foundation representing the funding development arm.
Read about the work of the men and women who have led the way on both Reena and Reena Foundation boards and worked diligently to continue to help build a bright future for Reena supported individuals.
The Re-Birth Of Reena Foundation
By 1992 Reena was celebrating its 18th year and continuing to thrive and grow. In fact, it was starting to outgrow its original structure. The decision is made to separate the organization into two entities working together towards a single goal. “Reena was starting to get larger and receive larger gifts,” says Reena CEO Bryan Keshen, “and it felt like if you could separate the Foundation and profile it, and instead of having a fundraising administrator, you had an Executive Director of a Foundation. The donor world responds differently and the person leading it would be focussed and have that skill set. You don’t want to mix the governance and skill set of those who are doing operations and those who are fundraising.”
The Reena Foundation Board is established as a separate organization to safeguard the assets donated to Reena and to receive donations from individuals and corporations in the community on behalf of Reena. The name Reena was given to the original group that continues to support individuals and their families and which receives all government funding. The Reena Foundation raises funds for 3 life-changing and empowering categories: Housing, programs and employment. Its mission is raising funds to invest in a better quality of life for people with autism and other developmental disabilities, mental health challenges and other diverse health needs.
Hy Eileyz”l was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of Reena’s Fundraising arm and was honoured to be the Founding Chair. Eiley was a man of tremendous vision and was instrumental in securing the lead gift for the Toby & Henry Battle Developmental Centre. Hy had foresight and a keen understanding of the resources that Reena would require to meet the needs of the future.
Reena Boards had traditionally consisted of many family members of individuals supported by Reena, but over the years, people with more diverse backgrounds began to participate and contribute to the organization. While the board was successful at achieving its goals, there were some growing pains to contend with. Conflicts arose between the Reena Board and the Reena Foundation Board as the separation of powers proceeded. “Where Reena and Reena foundation came into conflict is where people forgot that separation,” says Bryan Keshen, “Where people on either side were trying to do the other one’s job and/or they didn’t respect the others.” Keshen recalls coming into Reena at that time, and after a third-party review of their performance Bryan stepped in as acting Executive Director of the Foundation as they began a search for a new Executive Director. Now, says Keshen, they are one big, happy family. “They have raised significant dollars, huge capital, and the annual operation improved.”
“All of that is in the past,” says Charles Chee, Immediate Past Chair Reena Board, “now we are in a really harmonious space where everybody focuses on how we make Reena grow in a way that makes sense, that is actually serving the people that are looking to be served. It’s like a well-practiced orchestra, and we are producing beautiful music.”
Part of the role of sitting on the board is understanding the general operation and direction of the organization, discussing various matters, making decisions & recommendations or questioning certain things. But Chee says, “It’s also about understanding how to reach out to the community, to the private sector and to government agencies of all three levels and seeing how that really all comes together. From my perspective, if you want to get involved with an organization, especially on a board, you do need to roll up your sleeves and get serious about it. And I think that is true of all the board members. I think every board member works very, very hard, contributing in the way that they are able to because each of us brings a different perspective, a different set of strengths and a different way of interpreting things to allow us to be a little more comprehensive in looking at any situation or issue that we are dealing with.”
While family members may be more passionate about certain issues, Reena Boards supportive environment allows everyone to voice their opinions and challenge in a healthy and constructive way, according to Chee. “I think that’s what makes Reena strong.” However, one of the most crucial elements to any successful Board is the continual renewal of skills, views and perspectives. The importance of having new members on all of Reena’s governing Boards is critical for Reena’s future and Reena continues to put out the call to those willing to give of their time.
The new Reena Foundation Board may have been the first organizational change, but it would not be the last. Only one year later Reena would, literally, build upon its success with another new addition, Batay Reena.
L’dor V’ador: Young Leaders
By 1991, Reena’s Young Leadership Division was in full swing fundraising through various annual events and volunteering throughout the year.
Read about how Reena’s Young Leadership Division evolved and bred Reena board members, and how Reena continues to depend on young volunteers today.
L’dor V’ador: Young Leaders
By 1991 a new generation of volunteers in their 20’s was joining the ranks at Reena. A Young Leadership Group was created at Reena Foundation and by 1995 the group was well on its way to creating a signature event for Reena. The first ‘Mardi Gras’ was held in March 1995 and was a smashing success. Hundreds attended the evening of outstanding entertainment including dancing, casino, and silent auctions. Organizers including, Ari Huber, Stephen Gardner, Larry Berdugo and Ricky Brooks helped not only raise funds but also raised awareness and introduced a new generation to Reena. The Mardi Gras event continued for many years at such high-profile venues as the Ontario Science Centre, The Hockey Hall of Fame and the Design exchange and drew close to 1000 attendees at the height of its success raising tens of thousands of dollars for Reena. Most importantly, several of the Young Leadership Group became active in other areas of Reena and served as members of the Reena board of directors.
Ari Huber, who became involved with Reena in his 20’s through his neighbour, Barbara Sugar says, “I liked helping out, and I got a bunch of my friends involved. It was a good cause, and it was just fun.” Huber, who was involved in Fun Day, Mardi Gras and several other fundraising events says, “I actually ended up getting way more out of it than I put in…just as a result of putting in, and I guess that’s the lesson, you get what you give.” Getting involved with Reena also led to relationships that helped Huber professionally, and even finding his first apartment.
Stephen Gardner, who also began his work with Reena in his early 20’s found it both personally and professionally rewarding. “When I was starting my business, I reached out to Sandy (Keshen) to get experience.” Gardner, who was just getting his production business going took on Reena as one of his first clients working with Sandy who he admired and calls “a woman ahead of her time”. “At the time it was a very nice place to work, and volunteer and raise money and socialize,” he says, “it was really wonderful like home, and I made really good friends.”
One of the largest fundraising efforts initiated by young leaders that continues to help support Reena programs today is Joel’s Ongoing Inclusion Network (JOIN) established in memory of Joel Schwartz. It all began in 2009 when 25-year-old Joel Schwartz traveled to Israel as part of the Birthright Israel program with support from a Reena shadow. Joel had an amazing trip, says his brother Jon Schwartz, “It provided Joel the joy of acceptance and inclusion and the solidification of his Jewish identity. For his fellow travellers, it offered an awareness of the positives that differences can offer and the pleasure of having a positive impact on the life of another.” Unfortunately, shortly after that trip Joel passed away. “My two good childhood friends, Jessie Abrams & Zack Belzberg, approached me to do something in honour of Joel. I think they saw something special in Joel, worth memorializing and doing something.” The idea was for a fundraiser for Reena that would perpetuate Joels memory and fund in perpetuity the program that had so enriched Joel’s life.
Committee co-chairs Jonathan Schwartz, Jesse Abrams and Zach Belzberg immediately got to work and recruited 22 plus young people who put on what proved to be a first-class event. The first year they hoped to have a 5-team tournament and raise $10,000. They ended up having a 15-team tournament and raised over $100,000. “Part of the vision from there,” says Schwartz, “and it was almost created before the final day, because we were hitting 1000%, was let’s speak to Reena and let’s figure out how to make this an endowment fund.” The thought was that an endowment fund would support various programs year over year and in perpetuity, ensuring these programs enhance people’s lives in the way they enhanced Joels life. The Joel Schwartz Memorial Hockey Tournament ran from 2011-2017 and
raised just over $1,000,000. Money from the fund has gone towards things like the Israel trip, various camp programs, subsidized memberships and to provide shadows for people who want to go to Israel.
At its height, the event boasted a 30-person committee filled with young people with an average age of 25 or 26, according to Jon Schwartz. People would come and go over the years, but Schwartz says he felt as though they mentored many young people throughout that time. While some members would have less time due to the commitments of a young family, others would come in to take their place.
Joel’s ongoing inclusion network (JOIN) was established as a subcommittee of Reena Foundation to help distribute funding for innovative and inclusive programming opportunities which aim to integrate Reena clients into the community.
Today, Reena continues to depend on volunteers of all ages to help fundraise and support Reena programs. Despite the halt of Reena’s in-person fundraising events due to the pandemic, plans are in the works for the first in-person events just in time to celebrate Reena’s 50th anniversary including the return of Reena Fun Day, August 27th, 2023, and Reena’s Exceptional Abilities Gala, November 7th, 2023.
Thank You For Being A Friend: Pal-Unteers
Everybody needs a friend. Luckily, in 1990, Reena’s Pal-unteer program was in full swing with direct service volunteers developing one-on-one friendships with Reena supported individuals.
Read about how the program was win-win, with both volunteers and Reena supported individuals reaping the benefits of spending quality time together.
Thank You For Being A Friend: Pal-Unteers
With a new, dedicated Volunteer Coordinator Reena’s volunteer programs were beginning to come together in an organized way with eager volunteers waiting to find the best way for them to contribute. One of the most ambitious programs was the Pal-unteer program where volunteers commit themselves to developing a one-on-one friendship with a Reena supported individual. “The Pal-unteer program was one of many programs offered wherein we did our best to ‘target match’ a potential volunteer with a Reena individual who might have common interests,” says Arlene Margolese, former Volunteer Coordinator. “For instance, should a Reena individual be sports minded…we found someone who was into sports who would meet with that individual weekly or bi-weekly to pitch a ball, go for a jog, perhaps accompany that individual to the gym or attend baseball games and such together. One gal really loved to go to movies and plays and we were lucky enough to find someone who also loved going to like events. Their time together often morphed into lunch dates and shopping sprees as well. Another example was to find a volunteer for an individual who was deeply religious and because of a degenerative illness, he could no longer participate in learning Torah and singing hymns. I was able to recruit a Rabbi who visited with this individual weekly who brought a special meaning into his life – so much so, that the family hired this Rabbi to learn with this man on one or two other days of the week as well.” Through the Pal-unteer program, Reena supported individuals would gain social skills and self-esteem as well as the joy and satisfaction that comes from having a good friend.
The process of becoming a Pal-unteer was thorough. After an initial telephone screening, followed by an in-person meeting, volunteers who were a good fit were educated about Reena and what Reena does attending orientation sessions and additional quality assurance training to better understand and meet the needs of Reena supported individuals.
By 1992 Reena had 51 active Pal-unteers.
Who makes a good volunteer? According to Aviva Windman, who has worked with Reena’s volunteer department for over 13 years, there are a variety of people who choose to participate. “We get all kinds…youth, who are strictly there for the hours, youth who are feeling like this is something they want to go into, so they feel like this is a good time to get some experience under their belt. People who have family members with diverse abilities who are already aware of what it takes and want to give back in some way, and you have your retirees who just want to be helpful and give something back and keep themselves busy. The only thing they get to take away is that they’ve done something good for someone else. “A lot of volunteers are people who want to give back and share their skill sets, says Nicole Lipsey, manager….and many are looking to see if this is the right career path for them, “A lot of them turn into staff and fall into the program.”
Risa Rocket Feldman has been volunteering with Reena for 25 years. Risa started in 1998 coming in once a week and helping the group programs when she noticed that when she had a book out, one particular individual would light up, so she came up with the idea of story time. Twenty-five years later Risa is still reading. “I really feel appreciated,” she says, “It’s been very rewarding …I’ve always said I get more out of it then I could ever give. You really truly feel like you’re making a difference, even if it’s just a small difference.”
Of course, Reena’s volunteer program came to a grinding halt in 2020 due to the Pandemic. While there were some 30-40 virtual volunteers during Covid who sat in on virtual programming, including Risa Rocket Feldman, it was not the same, but it was something, according to Reena’s new Coordinator of Volunteers, Rachel Karstadt. Karstadt says she has started slowly contacting all previous volunteers and fielding many inquiries from new ones. Volunteers for Outreach, Homebuddies, Camp Reena, GReena, administration, and Pal-unteers are now being sought. Karstadt says she has also been recruiting University students downtown in an effort to place volunteers at day Programs at the Wolfond Centre on The University of Toronto’s Campus. “One of barriers for downtown students is getting up to Thornhill to volunteer,” she says.
Reena’s volunteer program currently has a half dozen people who have been slowly onboarded, but the new Volunteer Coordinator hopes to have another dozen new and returning volunteers going through the onboarding process and have some three dozen volunteers up and running by summer 2023.
From the very beginning Reena has relied on volunteers to help build an inclusive community and help Reena supported individuals in a variety of ways. In 1989 Reena begins to formally recognize and show appreciation to those who give of themselves so freely.
Read about how volunteerism at Reena has grown over the years and how our many volunteers have been honoured for their work with individuals with diverse abilities.
Reena was built by families and continued to grow due to the generous people who gave of their time, skills, and hearts. In 1989 Reena established the formal position of Coordinator of Volunteers for the first time. The establishment of this position was testimony to the value placed on volunteerism at Reena and the recognition that volunteers require resources and support in order to be effective in their efforts. “There were many people who wanted to “give back to society” through volunteering,” says Arlene Margolese, former Coordinator of Volunteer Services, “but 30 odd years ago, supporting people with developmental disabilities was pretty much unknown, still “foreign territory”, not considered the most attractive volunteer opportunity, therefore not easy to recruit people for.”
Margolese went to work organizing and promoting various volunteer programs to attract potential volunteers. “In order to do so, I needed to get the word out that spending time with individuals with developmental disabilities was fun and rewarding.” New volunteer programs were established including Day Program Volunteers, Home Buddies, who visited clients in their Reena residences, and Pal-unteers, who would spend time with individuals outside of the home.
Often potential volunteers didn’t see themselves volunteering with an individual because they hadn’t yet developed a level of comfort with the population so Margolese says, “I would place them in a group situation, either visiting weekly at a group home where they developed warm relationships with all the residents, and often in our Outreach Program or Summer Camp Program which took place in and around the Reena building.” Other people came to Reena volunteering their specific skills. According to Margolese, the Office Volunteer Program became so important to Reena, just about every department within Reena had an administrative volunteer to help the staff. “All volunteers were required to attend a training session wherein they were briefed about Reena, our values, goals, etc., and what was expected from them. Many had no knowledge related to developmental disabilities which we addressed and, of course, we had very strict rules governing how to conduct themselves to ensure the health and safety of the individuals that we support.”
Not only did volunteers, often young, grow in compassion, skills and commitment while involved with Reena, says Margolese, “but they went home to their families and friends enthusiastically enlightening them to the needs and attributes of people with developmental disabilities, dispelling common negative perceptions and encouraging support for Reena through sponsorship, volunteering on other levels.”
While many individuals with developmental disabilities can express their appreciation to volunteers, some are unable to. Wanting to ensure volunteers were formally acknowledged, Reena began a program to recognize and appreciate volunteers and the work they do. “To this end, we developed a number of award certificates, beautifully done, which were presented in a grand ceremony,” says Margolese. The Tammy Gutstein Humanitarian Award, The Rabbi Joseph Kelman Humanitarian Award, The Len Dworkin Humanitarian Award as well as numerous other awards which were named to represent the various departments and programs that benefitted from the good work of their volunteers. These Volunteer Appreciation Award ceremonies have always been joyful events that have included many dignitaries and politicians on hand to publicly acknowledge the hard work of Reena’s volunteers.
Reena volunteers have also received numerous prestigious awards outside the organization including UJA, the Ontario Government, The City of Toronto and The City of Vaughan. In 2002, in honour of Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee, a commemorative medal was presented to Canadians in recognition of significant achievements or distinguished service. Several Reena volunteers were chosen to receive this prestigious medal including long-time supporter Bert Raphael, who served as Reena’s honorary counsel received this honour along with Alex Eisen, a staunch supporter of Reena for many years, Frank Wilson, a one-time member of the Reena Foundation board and long-term Reena supporter Irving Ungerman.
In more recent years, the tradition of giving out awards publicly takes place annually at Reena’s Annual Community Meeting. Internally, volunteers are celebrated during the month of April for National Volunteer Appreciation Day, by their supervisors and have, in the past, been gifted with small tokens of Reena’s appreciation.
While the volunteer program was put on hold during the pandemic, it is slowly gearing back up with the hopes some three dozen volunteers being active by the summer of 2023.
Celebrating Passover Reena Style
Reena has always been about creating a world that includes people with diverse abilities in every aspect of life including Jewish life. Passover has always been a time to come together in celebration at the Reena Community Seder.
Read about how Reena’s seders have evolved over the years and learn how Reena strives to include every individual in Jewish life.
Celebrating Passover Reena Style
Reena’s philosophy is based on the belief that people with developmental disabilities have a place in mainstream society, close to family and friends. Part of Reena’s mission is to provide top quality residential services within a Jewish environment like the one in which they grew up, where Jewish rituals, customs and traditions were practiced so that Reena supported individuals are encouraged to feel proud of their Jewish heritage and comfortable participating in Jewish life. Jewish holidays, like Passover, have always been a special time at Reena and provided the perfect opportunity for community inclusion.
In the early years, residents of Reena’s group homes and individuals with diverse abilities generally spent the first two Seders with their families. In 1977, a third ‘mock’ Seder for the Reena family was added. The first annual Reena Passover Seder was held at the Orchardview Boulevard group home with some 25 attendees. As the Reena family grew, so too, did the Reena Family Seder moving a few years later to a larger space at Beth Emeth Bais Yehudah Synagogue. Sometimes the Seder was held before the actual date to help Reena family members and friends learn about Pesach in preparation for celebrating the holiday with their families and friends. By 1988 Reena opened the annual Seder to families as well, moving from a small room at the synagogue, to a medium sized room, and eventually to the main social hall with some 200 participants.
A Reena Seder was a joyous event filled with music, dancing and friends. By this time, the Seders were being organized by Reena’s Judaic committee which was responsible for creating the Jewish tone for the agency. As with most projects at Reena, the Passover Seder was innovative. A distinctive Haggadah was created by Marci Gilbert, former Director of Judaic Programming. The text, adapted from the traditional Passover story, had a unique take comparing the discrimination suffered by the developmentally disabled with the plight of the slaves under Pharaoh. “Each year when we read this story, we should think of ourselves as if we personally had gone out of Egypt. That is to say, to free ourselves to be the people we can be. We cannot allow ourselves to be bound by the labels of others. To be happy with our lives and to do the best we can are the rights and privileges of everyone.” By 1990 Reena’s annual Seder was opened to the entire community. Harley Mintz, past Foundation Chair, recalls the wonderful experience he had attending the event for several years, “…” this is what Reena is all about-to interact and integrate with the community.”
“Passover was very big,” says Sol Fleising, former CFO, and long-time Reena employee, “Sandy (Keshen) would invite Jewish residents from other agencies as well because she said otherwise, they wouldn’t have a Passover experience.” Sol recalls helping to lead the Seders, calling upon people to recite certain prayers, and read from the Haggadah. But, Sol says, he mostly remembers the dancing. “One time we hired a musician who played the trumpet and the keyboard. He was very religious and when he saw men and women dancing together, he refused to play. So, I told him this was a very special event and that these people never get a chance to dance and socialize with their peers. We convinced him and he stayed and played beautifully. There were huge circles of staff with residents and the families everyone was dancing in circles it was just beautiful.” Reena’s Family Seder continued to grow to some 500 attendees.
While the annual Reena Family Passover eventually came to an end, Reena supported individuals continue to participate in Seders and other Jewish celebrations through group programming both within Reena and within the greater Jewish community.
Reena Moves North
As Reena’s reach begins to extend north of the city of Toronto into York Region, so does Reena’s annual Fun Day. In 1987, the event moves from its original home in Yorkdale Shopping Centre to the Promenade Mall.
Read about the iconic fundraising event and how the shifting Jewish population combined with a welcoming city and municipality helped lay the groundwork for future partnerships in York Region.
Reena Moves North
In the 1980’s Toronto’s Jewish population was expanding along Bathurst Street into York Region. The first step was the intentional creation of a Jewish neighborhood with a large synagogue and Jewish day school. Jewish stores, kosher restaurants and kosher groceries soon followed. Attracted by large modern housing developments, Jewish schools, and the perception of the region as the ‘new neighbourhood’, Jews continued to move northward in York region and so did Reena.
Historically, Reena Fun Day, the Foundations signature event, had taken place annually at Yorkdale Shopping Centre on a Sunday, at a time when Sunday shopping was prohibited, and all the stores were closed. While the event had successfully run for many years, new organizers took over the planning the event and wanted to make a change.
Barbara Sugar, who co-chaired Reena Fun Day in 1987 with Sharon Noss, said they didn’t want to do the same thing that had been done in the past. Sugar recalls asking friend Wilfred Posluns if Reena could use the Posluns Theatre on Bathurst Street as the site for the event, “He said no, but what you should do is go to the Promenade mall.” The mall which had just opened in Thornhill in 1986 was beautiful but had no clientele. “Nobody has heard of it,” he said, “Go there and ask the stores to give you 10% of what they make that day, and Reena will make money and the Promenade will be advertised.”
Barbara Sugar and Sharon Noss did just that and more. According to Sugar, “We went to The Promenade and made all kinds of promises, that we were going to bring them all kinds of people and we were going to have shows and we were going to do all kinds of advertising for them.” Innovative marketing was utilized including radio and newspaper ads. Volunteers also helped put flyers that looked like parking tickets on cars all over the area.
To attract teens and young adults, and at the suggestion of Sugar’s young neighbour and volunteer Ari Huber, the committee even secured Sue Johansen, a well-known, outspoken sex educator to speak at the event! “But then I had to tell the executives at Promenade,” says Sugar, and they were horrified. “I said ‘well do you want people to come and spend money?’ So, they said okay, just tell her to speak quietly.”
Reena Fun Day at the Promenade had many components including live shows, children’s games, a raffle for a car, two auctions: one live, one silent, and involved more than 250 volunteers who gathered gifts for the auctions and prizes for the games and helped with the games at the event.
“I didn’t sleep a wink (the night before) because I made so many promises,” says Sugar, “…and I walked in there in the morning and there were hundreds of people…and people started coming and by the end of the day I was in tears because of the fabulous, fabulous support.” The first Reena Fun day at the Promenade attracted over 35,000 people to the mall throughout the day and evening activities and raised some $127,000.
Long-time volunteer and fundraiser Esther Michaels became involved with Reena Fun Day through her friend Barbara Sugar and was especially fond of the auction that would take place in the evening. Michaels says her whole family was involved selling tickets and getting merchandise for the auctions including some of her very own artwork. Michaels used to paint large canvases with ‘splash art’ and recalls her husband’s surprise at the fact that she was donating one to the auction. “My kids and husband were spotters at the auction…and when my painting goes up, my husband is ducking, he didn’t want anyone to know he was the husband of the artist. Meanwhile the bidding starts $50…$100…200…500…I think it sold for $1000 and my husband started to stand up so tall!” she recalls.
Reena Fun Day continued to run at the Promenade Mall for 7 years. While only co-chair for two years, Sugar says it was a rewarding experience in many ways. “For years it was very sweet because I live in an area where a lot Reena clients lived, and when they would see me at the local shopping centre would they say, ‘Oh hi, Reena Fun day lady!’ That was always a good feeling.”
Reena Fun Day was the first event to move up to York Region, but not the last. The continued growth north of the city, combined with the continued migration of the city’s Jewish population was soon going to see more of Reena including new buildings, homes and facilities for Reena supported individuals with diverse abilities.
Mazel Tov! Reena Celebrates Its Bar Mitzvah Year
Even before Reena officially existed, Rabbi Joseph Kelman z’’tl was committed to providing a Jewish experience for individuals with developmental disabilities, including bar and bat mitzvahs.
Read about how Reena has led the way towards inclusion in the Jewish community and what a Reena Bar mitzvah celebration is all about.
Mazel Tov! Reena Celebrates Its Bar Mitzvah Year
A Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a coming-of-age ceremony for Jewish boys and girls when they reach the age of 12 or 13 marking the time when they become a Jewish adult, responsible for their own actions. In 1986 Reena celebrated its B’nai Mitzvah year with a lavish ‘Bar Mitzvah’ party held at the Constellation Hotel. More than 1000 people were in attendance to recognize Reena’s 13 years of accomplishments and pay tribute to those who helped make them possible raising over $200,000. Mila Mulroney was the honorary chairperson at the event and presented the Tammy Gutstein award for exemplary commitment to the developmentally handicapped and to the community to Mr. and Mrs. Ray Osborne of Huttonville, Ontario who had adopted 17 disabled children, some of whom were severely handicapped.
To mark Reena’s many achievements some of the people who helped contribute so much to the community lit the Bar Mitzvah candles including Harvey Edelman, Joe and Helen Berman z’’l, Rochelle Carrady, the Honorable Frank Drea, Sam handler, Rabbi Joseph Kelman z’’tl, Sandy Keshen, Syrma Kochberg, Mayor Mel Lastman z’’l , Eleanor London, Marilyn Raphael, the Honorable John Sweeney, and Irving Ungerman z’’l , with the last candle being lit by individuals supported by Reena.
“We’re celebrating achievement,” said Sandy Keshen at the time, “We’ve grown to maturity and now provide quality services.”
Bar Mitzvah celebrations were not new to Reena. Rabbi Joseph Kelman had been helping individuals with diverse abilities participate in Jewish life for years, including Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. The Bar/Bat-Mitzvah Program was very emotionally rewarding, according to Former Manager of Faith & Cultural Services, Arlene Margolese, “Men or women would receive some training from a volunteer Rabbi and depending on their abilities, the individuals would say some of their Parsha and if possible, would give a short speech. I can recall one young woman who had lost her father and talked about how proud he must be of her for accomplishing this goal of hers and how he must be looking down and smiling at her at that moment. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.” According to Margolese, they also organized a group Bar Mitzvah celebration for a number of men of all ages, “who’s families didn’t feel it was important for them to celebrate. Again, these individuals expressed their pride in becoming a Bar-Mitzvah, and the acknowledgment that they too were contributing members to the Jewish world.”
One of Reena’s first clients, Henry Edson, who had spent 27 years institutionalized before becoming involved with Reena, became interested in having a Bar Mitzvah after accompanying Rabbi Kelman on Reena’s first trip to Israel in 1977. During the trip as Henry stood at the Western Wall, he spoke with much emotion of his privilege to be in Israel, on that sacred spot, and how it meant so much more to him since his father always desired to travel to Israel but was never able to fulfill that dream. The trip and his involvement in the Jewish community through Reena awoke within Henry a strong desire to complete the studies leading to his bar mitzvah. Celebrating his bar mitzvah was a milestone achievement and one which brought him great joy.
Sharing the joy has also been a goal of Reena’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Sharing a bar mitzvah with a person with developmental disabilities, twinning with a developmentally disabled victim of the Holocaust for a bar mitzvah, and donating bar/bat mitzvah gifts to Reena were all ways in which people could participate in Reena’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program.
“I reached out to Jewish organizations and synagogue women’s and men’s clubs, encouraging them to sponsor a Bar or Bat-mitzvah program since so many of our individuals never had the opportunity to experience or celebrate this Jewish traditional milestone,” says Margolese, “These celebrations were especially meaningful and an uplifting emotional experience for the participants, their families, guests, and volunteer sponsors.”
Like a child, Reena spent the first 13 years learning and experimenting, before forging ahead into adulthood to grow into the developmental health sector leader it is today.
Recognizing The Heroes: The Tammy Gutstein Humanitarian Award
Reena would not be where it is without the hard work and devotion of its many volunteers. The Tammy Gutstein Humanitarian award was established in memory of a dedicated young volunteer and is presented annually to a person who has involved him or herself in improving the quality of life for individuals with diverse abilities.
Read more about some of the recipients over the years and how Reena continues to recognize the tremendous efforts of staff and volunteers.
Recognizing The Heroes: The Tammy Gutstein Humanitarian Award
From the moment Reena was established there were generous and dedicated people in the community who volunteered their time and considerable energy to help the organization carry out its programs. One of the most loyal and dedicated volunteers was Tammy Gutstein who had been involved with Reena from 1973 until her untimely death in her thirties in 1984. Tammy was active in fundraising and direct support to individuals and helped to develop a volunteer program at Reena. She was also responsible for creating the goodwill which still exists between Reena and other agencies in the community. In her memory, Reena created the Tammy Gutstein Humanitarian Award which is presented on special occasions to individuals who have made significant impact on improving the quality of life for individuals with diverse abilities.
The first Tammy Gutstein Humanitarian Award was given to Sam handler, who served as Reena’s first Board chair following Rabbi Joseph Kelman z”tl from 1978-1980. Sam Handler was a big man, with boundless energy and a heart filled with both compassion and admiration for the individuals supported by Reena. Handler was an energetic volunteer and staunch advocate of Reena from its inception. For Sam the Reena family was his family, and he cared for each individual as his own child. In the early days, he enjoyed taking whoever wished to accompany him to movies, sports events, or coffee houses. To help fund these and other programs Sam embarked on the lengthy and complex paperwork necessary to run Bingo fundraising events in two Toronto locations. Sam and his wife Helen did all the work of attracting volunteers for the matinee and evening sessions, setting up locations, and reporting to the Ontario Gaming Commission to run the bingo operation which, during its heyday, raised much needed funds for Reena.
The Tammy Gutstein Humanitarian Award was also presented to North York Alderman Irving Chapley. Chapley was instrumental in helping advocate for Reena when it faced NIMBY-ism in the 1983 over the opening of a group home in a residential North York community. Chapley, who happened to live a few houses away from the home, which was to house individuals with mental health issues, spoke in favour of the group home. Irving Chapley became both hailed and reviled for his stance on the group home and risked his constituents support in favour of his beliefs saying, “My skin is thick enough, and I can take a stand when I feel what I’m doing is right…it’s a matter of principle.”
Albert and Cecile Sliwin were also honoured with the Tammy Gutstein Humanitarian Award. Cecile Sliwin volunteered at Temple Sinai with developmentally handicapped children in the late 1960’s. She was a successful businesswoman who gave her time to the community by serving on numerous committees. Both Albert and Cecile believed in the dignity of all individuals, finding good and hope in everyone and believing that all people have strengths and always looking at the positive side of them. The Sliwins also believed that charity must not be given as charity but with the intent that it will assist the individual to maintain their dignity and become self-sufficient and self-reliant.
Another notable honouree was Alex Eisen long-time community activist and Reena advocate who was instrumental in establishing the Ezra and Kadimah Schools Foundation supporting the educational needs of children and individuals with diverse abilities. Eisen served as vice president and fundraising chair for Reena and was involved in numerous Reena campaigns and fundraisers, most notably the Alex Eisen Society, which he created to raise funds for respite and enrichment programs. Alex never refused a call to action that involved Reena, from fundraising to political contacts, he was the go-to person. He gave sage advice and opened doors to access.
Other notable recipients include Wilfred Horwich, who worked diligently as Chair of Reena Foundations Camp Committee and Ray and Gina Osborne, who adopted 19 children with developmental disabilities among others who have committed themselves to improving the quality of life for individuals with diverse abilities.
Reena continues to thrive due to the devotion and hard work of volunteers just like Tammy Gutstein and those who have received the Tammy Gutstein Humanitarian Award. Reena will continue to honour those who go above and beyond giving generously of their time and money to ensure inclusion and that the most vulnerable individuals in our community are given the tools to live their best lives.
Outreach: The Reena Cartwright Resource Centre
Reena hits a milestone in 1984, opening an adult learning centre for individuals with developmental disabilities. The Reena Cartwright Resource Centre offers vocational training, life skills and recreation for many individuals, some of whom were still coming straight from institutions.
Read about how Reena’s resource services have grown since then and how Reena continues to work with its employer partners towards inclusiveness.
Outreach: The Reena Cartwright Resource Centre
By 1984 the government was still working on de-institutionalization in Ontario and Reena was still helping make it happen. Reena’s hope was always that by the time individuals with developmental disabilities moved back into the community there would be resources in place to offer them, and those who already lived in the community, support and direction including an opportunity to develop the life, vocational and recreational skills necessary to be part of the mainstream community. However, that was not the case, and Reena began planning for day programs and looking for a suitable location to house them. The Ministry of Community and Social services became supportive of Reena’s plan for a resource centre when they began to close the Pine Ridge institution in Aurora. These individuals with diverse abilities had emotional and behavioral problems that could not be addressed in the existing workshops or day programs, and they had nowhere to go. It took three years of discussion, planning and preparation before The Reena Cartwright Resource Centre (RCRC) opened.
The Cartwright Public School, in the Dufferin Road and Wilson Avenue area, had been closed for several years due to declining enrollment and was deemed a suitable location, however the North York Board of Education still had to approve a lease. Trustee Elsa Chandler, who represented Ward 4 where the school was located, was very helpful and worked with representatives from the Cartwright school neighbourhood to explain the whole concept of Reena and the Resource Centre. Chandler, an advocate for Reena since its inception, said at the time that she was “…very pleased with the community’s acceptance of the program and for the thoughtfulness and empathy shown throughout the discussion.” The Cartwright Public School lease was approved by the board.
Funding from the government, a result of the strong working relationship that Sandy Keshen had built with the Toronto area office of the Ministry, came in for the Resource Centre to accommodate over 70 people in its programs including most people who were leaving the facility at Pine Ridge.
The Reena Cartwright Resource Centre opened in May 1984 and provided day programs focused on recreational, vocational and life skills six days a week. Physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language were provided in addition to behavior management, vocational training, sports and crafts. Each individual would participate in aspects of the program after careful assessment of his or her specific needs, abilities and interests. The multidimensional day program for individuals with diverse abilities between the ages of 21 to 52, many of whom were living in Reena’s group homes and other residential facilities, was operated by a combination of employees and volunteers with one staff person serving every four clients. The centre was non-denominational but provided a Kosher environment and Jewish based values.
The RCRC partnered with Jewish Vocational Services (JVS) and diversified into many vocational options with individuals with diverse abilities involved in a number of activities. The coffee shop ‘Checkers’ sold food for anyone visiting the centre, and individuals with diverse abilities worked outside the centre with staff support at many mainstream businesses and restaurants. One of the most exciting and productive programs at the RCRC was an art workshop. A wide range of articles including T-shirts, sweatshirts, gift tags and cooler bags were designed and individually splash painted in bright colours and sold at competitive prices to visitors to the centre.
In 1991-92 the Reena Cartwright Resource Centre closed and moved to a new warehouse facility on Dufflaw Road. Both of these facilities were only a pre-curser for what was to come next for Reena’s day programs. Reena was about to embark on an ambitious plan to build one of the first facilities of its kind in the world, what would soon come to be known as The Battle Centre.
Nimby-Ism In North York
In 1983, the concept of group homes was still a fairly new one that not everyone was in favour of, especially in their own neighbourhood. When Chai-Tikvah, Reena’s mental health program, wanted to secure a house for the rehabilitation of psychiatric patients, NIMBY-ism (not in my backyard) took hold in North York.
Read about the many champions who stepped up for Reena and Chai-Tikvah and how Reena continues to thrive in residential neighbourhoods and communities today.
Nimby-Ism In North York
Homes for any group of people other than a family were not welcomed in most in residential communities when Reena opened its first group home for individuals with diverse abilities in 1974. Despite nearly a decade, nothing had really changed by the early 1980’s when Reena sought to open a group home to operate on behalf of Chai Tikvah.
Back in the early 1970’s, when trying to buy what would become Reena’s first group home, community backlash and protests prompted North York Mayor Mel Lastman to get involved, according to Eleanor London, former Reena Board Chair, who was involved in the process at the time. “He called a meeting to assure the protesters that this was not “crazies” who would be living next door…but an organized group of families trying to make a home for their children,” says Eleanor. A Holocaust survivor eventually sold Reena another house on Luverne Avenue under the condition the deal was done quickly and quietly. Despite the opposition, the home conformed to North Yorks city bylaw that permits the operation of group homes for up to 10 people in residential areas.
When a house on Stonedene Boulevard was planned as the first group home for Chai Tikvah for those with mental health issues, the cry of ‘Not in My Backyard’ was heard again. The home, to be known as the Jerry Turk fellowship house, planned to provide 24-hour staffing and life skills training directing clients towards independent living in the community. Clients were expected to participate in day programs outside the home including cooking and life skills and undergoing therapeutic programs at local hospitals. Even though many of the home’s residents had grown up in that North York neighbourhood, hundreds of protesters rallied with the Bathurst Village Ratepayers Association in North York City Hall Council chambers. They were concerned for the safety of their children and that a home for individuals with mental health needs was a new undertaking for Reena. They asked council to postpone the opening of the home on Stonedene until further study could be done on residential needs for ex-psychiatric patients.
One of the better-known residents of Stonedene Boulevard was Ward 7 Alderman Irving Chapley. Chapley lived a few houses away from the group home which was set to house eight former patients aged 20 to 39. He spoke on behalf of the home saying he had no cause for worry or concern. Chapley said his constituents’ worries were based on fear of the unknown and that he was confident Reena was a capable organization and he never had problems with their group homes in his area.
Council voted to uphold its group home bylaw and permit the Chai Tikvah home to open in North York despite the staunch opposition from neighboring residents. Council also voted to accept Chapley’s suggestion that a committee be formed comprised of Reena officials, himself, provincial licensing officials and residents to monitor the home and keep the community informed. Opponents vowed to picket the house after City Council refused to delay its opening and Alderman Irving Chapley became both hailed and reviled for his stand. “I took a stand on the Reena Foundation group home,” said Chapley. “My skin is thick enough, and I can take a stand when I feel what I’m doing is right, it’s a matter of principle.” In 2019 Chai Tikvah merged back with Reena in a move designed to secure and grow the preeminent mental health services that Chai-Tikvah provided, while strengthening Reena’s capacity to support the individuals they serve. The Stonedene home was remodeled in 2019 and became the Robbins Family Group Home serving vulnerable women living with developmental disabilities.
Today Reena provides specialized care to meet the unique abilities of individuals with diverse abilities in over 30 homes and over 60 Supported Independent Living Apartments that are all in residential communities. Chai Tikvah now operates a Triplex, semi-independent residential facility with three units that can accommodate up to 8 adults each. The new housing model allows for immediate and future expansion from one home with 8 residents to today’s 3 units with 10 people and the opportunity for another 10 people. Chai Tikvah continues to support individuals who are dealing with mental health issues with the goal of providing residents with the ability to thrive independently within their community.
In 1982, Chai-Tikvah, a mental health program was established under the Reena umbrella. Born, once again, out of the concern of a small group of parents, their goal was to establish a Jewish group home for the rehabilitation of individuals with mental health issues.
Read about how Chai-Tikvah became one of the first organizations fostered by Reena and how it has grown to not only help individuals and their families through support services and programs but has helped change policies and practice through advocacy and research.
Mental Health reform was in its infancy in the early 1980’s. Individuals with mental health issues were housed in hospitals and boarding houses where Jewish residents were not served religiously or culturally. In 1981, a group of concerned parents approached Rabbi Kelman and Sandy Keshen and told them ‘You’re doing great work with individuals with developmental disabilities, but what about people with mental health disabilities?’
“Back in those days Reena was very big on piloting organizations with the intention of then divesting,” says long time employee Rochelle Goldman Brown, Executive Director of Chai Tikvah. “They saw there was a need in the community for programs, they didn’t want to run them, but they were very involved in getting them up and started.” Chai Tikvah was one of the first of these agencies.
Chai Tikvah, Reena’s mental health arm, began as an organization helping de-institutionalized mental health patients in the Jewish community, providing a social program for members. Today Chai Tikvah acts as resource and advocate supporting individuals and families experiencing mental health concerns and providing supportive housing and other counseling supports for adults living with mental illness.
By 1982, with government funding secured, Chai Tikvah got the go ahead to embark on a 2-year pilot project providing a Jewish group home where individuals could participate in an outreach program and transition into the community. A potential location was found and that’s when NIMBY-ism reared its ugly head. (Full story on NIMBY-ism found in 1983) Eventually, and thanks to the efforts of many Reena supporters the home on Stonedene Boulevard in North York became a reality. According to Goldman-Brown, the neighbours eventually came around, “It settled a lot, we did a lot of work in the community, with the neighbours, inviting people over for coffee…eventually even becoming the neighbourhood watch house.”
In 1987 Chai Tikvah moved out of Reena and became its own entity with its own board of directors. Mental health issues continued to be on the rise and the need for Chai Tikvah grew. Mental illness continued to be the number one cause of disability in Canada, costing the Canadian economy a staggering $51 billion a year. Not to mention the great burden that is placed on the families and the community of those who suffer.
Chai Tikvah continued to grow and serve those in need, and in 2019 the organization merged back with Reena. The amalgamation was designed to secure and grow the preeminent mental health services that Chai-Tikvah provided, while strengthening Reena’s capacity to support the individuals they serve. The synergy created by the move benefited both organizations as they share very similar beliefs, and both operate within the framework of Jewish culture and values. “Working with Chai-Tikvah will allow Reena to further develop a continuum of care across health and social services. Reena serves many clients with mental health needs, and this integration will create a platform for Reena to expand these services over time,” said Bryan Keshen, President & CEO of Reena.
In 2018 Chai-Tikvah sold their first group home to invest in a six-plex. The new housing model allowed for immediate and future expansion from one home with 8 residents to 3 units with 10 people and the opportunity to redesign the other three units for another 10 people. The goal, to provide the residents with the ability to thrive independently within their community. Professional staff support is on-site and work 24/ 7 to support the residents by addressing their recovery and well-being goals and helping residents to develop and maintain their life skills. The program has been the gateway that has allowed many of Chai Tikvah’s clients to move out of the triplex to thrive completely and independently within their community. The highest support in the whole mental health system is Chai Tikvah’s 24-hour house on Fraserwood Avenue, with a 1 to 8 staff ratio which provides intense services to clients in need of more complex support. Chai-Tikvah also provides support to individuals in their own living environment.
Rochelle Goldman Brown has seen the result of the agencies hard work. “I’ve had people who hadn’t come out of their house in years because they were too afraid to open the door and then the parents pass away, and they’re left there, and we have them move into the group home and within a year they’re living in an apartment and they’re living okay, and they are engaging and they are coming back and they’re actually helping the other clients…That to me says a lot.”
Chai Tikvah continues to build partnerships with hospitals to accommodate clients who are discharged as well as working with individuals who come to them through families, social workers, and case managers in the community. The organization remains focused on helping individuals and families through support services, serving communities through programs and partnerships, and changing policies or practices through advocacy and research.
“Revolutionary, fearless advocates for radical change,” is what Rochelle Goldman Brown calls Reena and Chai Tikvah. “I see Reena as a group of leaders making radical change in the area of developmental disabilities starting at the individual level…to living independently within the community which has just been radical for that community. But even more so I think the radical change has to do with community perception, and I think community perception changed a lot due to the work of the Reena.”
Advocacy is once again on the agenda as Reena leads the way by bringing together the best experts in the field of mental health to discuss today’s most prominent issues and learn from each other. Chai Tikvah’s Mental Health Symposium set for May 18th will not only include learning opportunities for specialists but will also provide sessions for family members and professionals. Keynote speakers are set to include Catherine Zahn Deputy Minister of Health, Province of Ontario and Steve Lurie, Former Executive Director, Canadian Mental Health Association, Toronto Branch.
Both Reena and Chai Tikvah are determined to continue to lead the way as mental health continues to be a growing problem effecting a large portion of all segments of the population.
Putting the Fun in Fundraising
Reena has always had the support of generous volunteers and donors who have come up with a multitude of unique, fun, and inclusive ways to raise money to help meet the needs of individuals supported by Reena.
Read about Reena’s signature Fun Day and the people who made it happen. Learn how the event was not only fun for all attendees but also for all the volunteers who worked on it too.
Putting the Fun in Fundraising
In 1975 Reena held a unique day-long carnival and sale at Yorkdale Shopping Centre to raise funds and awareness in the community for the Foundation and its programs. Some 5000 people were in attendance, and a tradition was born. By 1981 Reena Fun Day had become a big event-involving many volunteers, attracting major media promotion, and raising important dollars for the Reena foundation. The Yorkdale extravaganza was drawing 20,000 people and had become a signature event that acted as both a fundraiser and a friend-raiser for Reena.
“It meant a lot in terms of identity,” says 30+ year employee and Resource Manager James Sejjengo. “We have a lot of individuals in the system that identifying with Reena is very important. A function like Fun day was a wonderful thing because we did shine, the people we support did shine. Everything was about Reena.”
Eleanor London, who helped found Reena and is a former Reena Board Chair, oversaw the inaugural Yorkdale event and recalls how the event came together. “I was very involved with my Hadassah Chapter, and we had just held a very successful event at Yorkdale Shopping Centre, that (friends and Reena advocates) Syrma and Harold Kochberg had attended,” says Eleanor. She attended a meeting with the Kochbergs and other Reena parents and despite having no family connection to any individuals with diverse abilities, she was drawn in. “I was persuaded to attend another meeting where the idea of “Fun Day” emerged,” says Eleanor, “They asked me to help as I had done a similar event for Hadassah. This is where it began.”
According to those involved in the early days, it was exhausting work but the energy and positive spirit of everyone involved in procuring the sale items, organizing games and sports activities, making sandwiches for shoppers to lunch on, and the excitement of counting the dollars as they piled up during the day made it all a joyous and heartwarming undertaking.
Featured at Yorkdale Funday were a variety of boutiques, games, and music. There was a casino, auction block, sidewalk sale and mini carnival. Local bands, school orchestras, and dance troupes all clamored to participate. A number of local celebrities participated including Bob Caplan, Mel Lastman, Eddie Shack, Barbara Hamilton and Al Waxman. The goal? An exciting, energetic atmosphere. “The people we support, chronologically they may be adults, but in the majority of cases they take on some behaviours of children, so if you have a carnival atmosphere, this is what they enjoy” says Sejjengo.
Marilyn Raphael, former Reena Board Chair, and long-time advocate for Reena, fondly recalls the grueling preparations that went into the event. “We got a donation of bread, one Cuisinart and 10 women came to the house, and we boiled a hundred dozen eggs, we made thousands of sandwiches and wrapped them, and that was the food booth,” says Raphael.
Even though she remembers buying all the auction items she never knew she needed, including an organ and a refrigerator, Marilyn recalls the early days of Fun Day with great fondness, “We had so much fun. We laughed, we loved, we hugged…it was such a family. I’ve never worked with people like this before or since in my life.”
One of the most energetic and committed volunteers was Joe McReynolds from the Toronto office of the Ministry of Community and Social Services, who ran a hot dog stand at every Yorkdale Fun Day. He was in fierce competition with another volunteer, also selling hot dogs, but through sheer willpower, charm and persuasion, Joe always managed to sell more.
Hyla Kochberg, who’s sister Sandy has been supported by Reena for over 40 years, remembers Reena Fun Day as something she looked forward to the whole year as a young child. “I remember the buildup because I would have to go help box up clothes that we sold,” says Kochberg. Kochberg vividly recalls everyone meeting at the big fountain in front of Simpsons department store and how she and Rena Keshen (Sandy Keshen’s daughter) would run around trying to sell raffle tickets.
“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 London.
Reena Fun Day eventually moved north to the Promenade Mall in Thornhill to better accommodate the population before it was replaced by other fundraising and friend raising events. (See full story in 1987 on the timeline) This year, to mark Reena’s 50th anniversary, Reena Fun Day is back. The signature event is set to take place August 27, 2023, at The Promenade Mall.
Irving & Sylvia Ungerman Sports Complex
In 1980 Camp Reena, Reena’s 52-acre summer retreat just outside Orangeville, was thriving and growing. As part of the largest fundraiser at the time, Irving Ungermanz’’l, successful businessman and one-time professional boxing manager and promoter agreed to be roasted by professional comedian and roast master Don Ricklesz’’l.
Read about the historic event and how the Ungerman family has built a legacy at Reena that continues today.
Irving & Sylvia Ungerman Sports Complex
Irving Ungerman z”l grew up in a tough area of Toronto. He started boxing at the ‘Y’ when he was twelve to get back at a bully who had kicked him. By 1939 he won the city Boxing championship. Later, as a physical education instructor in the Air force, he was a featherweight contender. Ungerman later became known as “Mr. Boxing” in Canada; a name he earned when he managed the career of Canadian heavyweight champion George Chuvalo. By 1979, Irving Ungerman the promoter was also a successful and well-known businessman as President of Royce Dupont Poultry Packers. 1979 was also the year Ungerman chaired Reena’s very successful Gala Dinner in honour of Toronto Metro Chairman, Paul Godfrey. By 1980, Ungerman was leading one of Reena’s most unique fundraising events ever.
Prompted by his life-long love of sports, Ungerman recognized the fact that individuals with diverse abilities want to participate in sports too, and that Reena needed a proper facility for that to happen. The goal was to build a Sports Complex at Camp Reena, the summer retreat for individuals with diverse abilities. So, he bought out the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto for the opening night of the Don Rickles’ Show and sold the tickets to provide the seed funding for the sports facility. As part of the fundraiser, Don Rickles, the world-famous insult comedian, was also going to roast Irving Ungerman! According to Ungerman, when Reena approached him and asked if he would be willing to be roasted by Don Rickles, Ungerman said “I don’t care what Rickles says about me…if all the seats are sold (we can raise) close to a quarter of a million dollars”. And that is exactly what they did.
Among the various schemes Irving Ungerman came up with to raise funds for the Sports Complex the most successful were the Don Rickles show and the sale of honourary gold, silver and bronze bricks which were engraved with the donors’ names and placed in a special wall.
“Back in those days” says son, and former Foundation and Batay Reena Chair, Howard Ungerman. “He was a very big name in the sports world and a very big fundraiser.” Howard humorously recalls the first time his father got him involved with Reena. “There was a committee put together for the fundraiser and my father told them to invite his son.” He was invited for an 8 a.m. breakfast meeting, and despite living so close, he drove, but forgot about the lack of parking on Eglinton. “By the time I got into the meeting, I had already been appointed vice chair!”
The Irving and Sylvia Ungerman Sports Complex was officially opened in 1984. The four seasons Complex included a large gymnasium, arts and crafts centre, lounge and change facilities and, because integration with the community was a desired goal, the facility was open to the public. The completion of the project fulfilled Ungerman’s vision of opportunity and enrichment for individuals with diverse abilities of all ages with the chance to develop themselves through physical activity.
In May 1985, a tornado struck Camp Reena in Orangeville damaging the Sports Complex among other facilities on the camp. While the damage was repaired, Camp Reena was eventually sold in 1992.
The Ungerman’s continued to support Reena throughout the years. In 2005/06 Irving Ungerman announced the launch of a $100,000 campaign in support of the Irving and Sylvia Ungerman Sports Complex at Reena’s Toby and Henry Battle Developmental Centre to undertake important renovations, purchase new equipment, and endow important respite programs for Reena. “Recreational and sports programs for these youngsters are so important in keeping them active fit and healthy it all leads to a better quality of life for them,” said Ungerman. The gym continues to be the centre of action at The Battle Centre today.
Howard Ungerman began his own work with Reena in the mid 1990’s. “It’s not because I have any connection to the developmentally disabled, it’s because I got drawn in through my father’s involvement and the Rickles event,” says Ungerman. “Reena was heartfelt to me, and I thought Sandy (Keshen) was just the most amazing person…a driving force. The people were so kind-hearted and generous, so committed and caring and bright and personable”.
Howard Ungerman joined the Reena board becoming chair and overseeing several Gala Fundraising Events including a dinner that honoured five outstanding athletes and featured a moving video presentation of Reena supported individuals participating in the same sports as the honoured athletes. “It (Reena) has such incredible respect among all the agencies doing the same work. Reena is a leader, it’s just a leader.”
Howard Ungerman currently sits on the Batay Reena Board as immediate past chair.
Promoting Inclusivity In Jewish Life
Rabbi Joseph Kelmanz’’tl was at the forefront of promoting inclusivity in Jewish life for individuals with developmental disabilities. In 1979, Reena sponsored a conference for rabbis and clergy from all denominations to discuss the issue.
Read about how panelist and Reena parent Syrma Kochberg spoke from her own experience and learn how Reena’s advocacy role has grown since then.
Promoting Inclusivity In Jewish Life
Inclusion for individuals with diverse abilities was practically non-existent in the 1970’s. Not only did neighbours, family and friends not know what to say to the parents of a child with development disabilities, neither did most Rabbi’s.
It wasn’t until Syrma Kochberg sent her 5-year-old to kindergarten that she discovered her daughter was developmentally challenged. A deeply religious person, she was bombarded with feelings of guilt and anger. What did I do? And why is G-d doing this to my child? She went to her Rabbi for an answer, and he had nothing to say. “He could not even comfort me and never brought it up again to ask how she was doing.” Kochberg, an observant Jew, was angry that Rabbis of Toronto did not appear to be equipped to care for individuals with diverse abilities.
Kochberg connected with Rabbi Joseph Kelmanz”tl and other parents of children with diverse abilities advocating for her daughter, Sandy. Syrma helped found Reena Foundation in 1973 where she served as Chair from 1981-1983 and continued to be active for many years.
In 1979, Syrma sat on a panel at a conference entitled: “What Do You Say to the Parents of a Mentally Handicapped Child?” with Rabbi Kelman and others. Speaking to a conference of clergy from all different faiths and denominations Rabbi Kelman said, “Churches and synagogues in the past have deprived these children of communion and bar mitzvahs but our experience has been that handicapped children have a greater yearning then the rest of us for religion.” Kelman explained that individuals with diverse abilities are more honest and less sophisticated than the rest of us who have other ways of finding an identity and expressing ourselves. Kelman believed that if you limit your expectations of people with diverse abilities they will only go that far.
Recommendations were made at the conference that clergy return to their congregations and speak about the developmentally disabled and the importance of acceptance within the community. It was also advised that Synagogues and Churches establish programs for people with diverse abilities and that resources be created and distributed to clergy. Training in counselling families of developmentally disabled children was also urged for theology students.
The conference was a good start. Once educated, Jewish institutions began to welcome and embrace the inclusion of individuals with diverse abilities. Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, Jewish Holiday parties and even special trips to Israel for people with developmental disabilities have all been the result of advocacy for the inclusion of all abilities in Jewish life.
While supporting people of all races and religions, Reena’s mission to promote dignity, individuality, independence, personal growth and community inclusion within a framework of Jewish culture and values sets it apart from other service providers. Based on the Judaic principles of Chesed VeTzedek (Compassion and Justice), Tikun Olam (Repair the World) and Kvod Habriyot (Honour Our Humanity) Reena has always strived to employ these principles to govern all decisions and encompass interactions with all stakeholders.
“As a Jewish agency, I loved helping our individuals develop their knowledge base and pride in their faith, culture and heritage” says former Manager of Faith and Cultural Services, Arlene Margolese.
While there is still more work to be done, today, inclusion in Jewish life is becoming the norm. Jewish schools, synagogues, camps and community centres strive to serve the needs of individuals with diverse abilities. Thanks to the advocacy work of Reena families and supporter’s, individuals of all abilities can, and do, participate actively in religious life both inside and outside the organization and are contributing members of the greater Jewish community.
Sandy Kochberg moved into one of Reena’s first group homes at age 23, later moving into an apartment with roommates and worked with children at Gan Yeladim nursery for many years. Sandy is currently 66 years old and a happy resident of the Lou Fruitman Reena residence.
Reena begins to receive funding from the Ministry of Community and Social Services and invests in training individuals with developmental disabilities for gainful employment in an inclusive environment. Creations by Reena silk flower designs becomes one of the first of Reena’s supported employment programs and serves as a model for many future endeavors.
Read about how Reena has strived to help garner a sense of independence and self confidence for supported individuals while promoting inclusion in the workplace.
Bringing individuals with diverse abilities out of institutions and into the community was not just about finding them somewhere to live. It involved many different types of training including life skills, learning to live in the community and employment training.
The Creations by Reena program was a unique opportunity for individuals with developmental disabilities to study the art of creating silk floral arrangements and learn how to operate the business of selling or renting their handiwork to the public. It was an alternative for many individuals whose only employment opportunities at the time were assembly line work in factories. Besides learning how to work with silk flowers, staff also gained experience in the various facets of the Bathurst Street store operation from answering the phones, taking orders, handling shipments, pricing, and customer relations. Even small order deliveries offered individuals an opportunity to take public transportation and build up their self-confidence and sense of independence.
Penny Rush, who originally owned and operated the store, sold it to the Foundation and stayed on as manager. She had never worked with individuals with diverse abilities but agreed to try teaching floral techniques. The venture was a huge success. Creations by Reena became respected in the community, providing silk arrangements and centrepieces for homes, hospitals, weddings, and bar mitzvahs.
Eventually the program transitioned to the Reena Cartwright Resource Centre (RCRC). Providing regular day programs, 6 days a week, the RCRC programs offered life skills training, vocational training in partnership with JVS (Jewish Vocational Services), functional academics as well as crafts, sports, and a variety of other training programs. A very important part of the program would focus on social development through recreation activities. Each supported individual would participate in aspects of the program after careful assessment of his or her specific needs, abilities, and interests.
Within just a few months the RCRC diversified into many vocational options. One of the most exciting and productive programs at the RCRC was a workshop which provided job opportunities to many individuals who attended the day programs. The coffee shop, Checkers, staffed by Reena individuals sold food for anyone visiting the centre, and employment within the community was thriving. In addition, Creations, the Reena gift shop, was opened selling a wide range of articles including T-shirts, sweatshirts, gift tags and cooler bags that were designed and individually splash painted in bright colours by the very talented Raymond Spadaro.
After moving from the RCRC, the Iannuzziello Family Gift shop opened in the Toby and Henry Battle Developmental Centre in 1998. Filled with brightly coloured merchandise including hand painted silk scarves, t-shirts and pottery all made by individuals supported by Reena, the shop continued to provide opportunities for individuals with a creative bent. Also for sale at the shop were plants grown in the Battle Centre’s greenhouse and vegetables grown in Reena’s own garden, all worked on by individuals with diverse abilities.
While competitive employment is not the only goal, the program according to Reena Resource Manager Ann Szabo is about connecting. “A lot of the people are looking for socialization, meaningful activities during the day with peer groups, where they can develop and grow because a lot of them have the intention of moving out of their family homes into their own places so it’s a lot of life skills, prevocational, and socialization. Learning to live with other people and coexist.”
To that end, the Pathways and Channels programs were developed some 15 years ago. “Pathways is a community participation program for people who live in the community and are looking for activities that keep them engaged, including finding employment. Channels is for people who are looking for independent skills and was meant for those individuals moving into independent living to develop life skills”, says Szabo. Pathways is for people who need a little more support who can volunteer and be active in the community.
While all programming virtually shut down in 2020 due to the pandemic, Reena was able to keep people engaged through daily virtual programming; as well as some in person for those who could not thrive in the virtual world. Throughout the last 3 years, Reena has been working to redesign Community Participation Supports for our individuals. Reena has piloted many new opportunities and continues to work with our community and the individuals we support to provide the kind of meaningful activities and employment that they want. “Choice” is the most important word in a staff’s vocabulary and the most desired by the people we support.
Reena Goes To Israel
Reena’s focus on inclusivity working within a framework of Jewish culture and values inevitably led to a trip to Israel. With the guidance of Rabbi Joseph Kelmanz’’tl, the first inclusive trip to Israel with Reena individuals took place in 1977 and was a huge success paving the way for many future trips.
Read about those who have helped guide Reena’s faith and cultural services and how Reena continues to provide a Jewish experience for supported individuals and their families.
Reena Goes To Israel
“They have the same dreams and aspirations everyone else has. They just don’t have access to all the activities and programs that the rest of us take for granted.” Rabbi Joseph Kelmanz”tl
In July 1977 Rabbi Joseph Kelman, Reena Founding Visionary, took the first group of Reena supported individuals on a trip to Israel offering a standard program including visits to all the key cities and sites of Israel. “It is part of my whole philosophy to give them the same opportunities everyone else has” Rabbi Kelman said explaining the motivation for the trip, which was a huge success.
“People with developmental disabilities are so often overlooked when it comes to instilling a sense of pride in their heritage, belonging within the Jewish community and their connection as Jews to Israel which was enhanced and solidified through these hands-on experiences,” explains former Volunteer Coordinator and Manager of Faith and Cultural Services and long-time employee, Arlene Margolese.
The second trip to Israel took place in 1979 with 10 individuals who had the opportunity to meet Aliza Begin, wife of then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who was an honourary member of Akim, the Israeli organization for individuals with developmental disabilities.
By the 1990’s Reena supported individuals and staff were joining mega tours to Israel like the Jewish National Fund (JNF) mission. Former Reena CFO Sol Fleising accompanied several individuals with diverse abilities on one of the trips and said it was an amazing experience where he learned so much. “We got very close from the trip, and we invited everyone over for dinner over Passover,” says Fleising.
James Sejjengo, 30+ year employee and Reena Resource Manager says some of his most memorable ‘Reena’ moments came out of his trips with individuals. “I take a group of people to Israel in the 90’s and this young woman was on the trip; I knew she was pretty religious…devoted. What I didn’t know was when we landed at the airport in Tel Aviv, she got off the steps of the plane, lay down on the ground and kissed the ground,” Everybody gathered around and was just mesmerised, says Sejjengo, nobody expected that.
On the same flight, says Sejjengo, ”We had a gentleman with a lot of negative behavioural issues, and, on the plane, he tended to yell and use vulgar words. Everybody was looking at us asking ‘why did you bring this guy here?’ and we tried to explain it was a cultural trip, but nobody would listen. People were not happy with us. However, we get to Israel, and we do a couple of tours including Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum and on the morning of the tour, this individual went silent. People were wondering what was wrong. He remains silent, like in a trance until we finish the tour. People asked why he was so quiet, and we explained his story. This man was a Holocaust survivor, his brain injury was a result of a beating by the Nazis in Germany. From then on, all 400 people on the tour transformed their attitudes and gave him respect. We watched the transition from people who were blaming us for bringing him to people now thanking us for bringing him.”
By the early 2000’s the Taglit Birthright Israel program was in full swing but was not accessible to individuals with diverse abilities. “When Birthright Israel first started,” explains Arlene Margolese, “individuals with diverse abilities were excluded because our individuals needed to be accompanied by staff. It was explained to us that because participants were chosen through drawing their names out of a lottery, there was no way to ensure staff names would be drawn to accompany individuals.” But Sandy Keshen said if it’s a ‘birthright’, why shouldn’t they be eligible?
And so, in 2001, 15 Reena supported young adults with developmental disabilities participated in the Birthright Israel program, which provides Jewish young adults an opportunity to tour and learn about Israel at no cost. According to one participant, “It was the best trip ever,” saying touching the Western Wall was “a very spiritual experience”. Another participant, Daniel Dushinskyz”l, said he most enjoyed climbing the ancient Jewish stronghold Masada with the Israeli flag on his back the whole way up the mountain. One participant, confined to a wheelchair, didn’t let that stop him from the exciting activities like riding a zip line in his wheelchair.
Ann Szabo, 35-year employee and Reena Resource Manager, had the opportunity to accompany a group of individuals on that Birthright Israel Trip which she calls one of her most memorable experiences as well. One of the women she was chaperoning was afraid of flying, so she held her hand and supported her the whole-time during take-off, despite fearing flying herself. Fast forward to visiting Masada and they are on their way down the snake path. Ann was having difficulty as she had given her water away to someone else who needed it. The same individual from the plane took her hand and told her ‘It’s ok Ann, I got you’ and held her hand the whole way down supporting her the way Ann had supported her on the plane.
Birthright Israel now offers accessible trips annually thanks to the Azrieli Foundation many Reena supported individuals continue to take part in this amazing experience.
Sandy Keshen Takes The Lead
In 1976 Sandy Keshen took the helm becoming Reena’s executive director and helping drive the vision of community inclusion with her unwavering belief in social justice for individuals with developmental disabilities.
Read about her diligent work to ensure the rights of all individuals over her 41-year tenure and how the word “impossible” was not in her vocabulary.
Sandy Keshen Takes The Lead
“Ensuring that people with multiple disabilities are in the mainstream of our community and are seen as active participants, living lives of dignity and are engaged with both their families and communities is the most important thing that Reena does”-Sandy Keshen
Sandy Keshen has spent a lifetime fighting on behalf of others and making the system work for their benefit. It was largely because of her efforts to get a proper education for her daughter that Sandy began getting involved with the plight of the disabled in the community. Ensuring her daughter with learning disabilities had the same access to learning as her son, she became highly active in the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities. At the same time, Sandy was dismayed at the lack of services for the developmentally disabled within the Jewish community, especially regarding education. Their shared concerns brought Sandy Keshen and the late Rabbi Joseph Kelman together and the rest, as they say, is part of Reena’s 50-year history.
“I remember so vividly my mom talking about the values that underly Reena”, says Bryan Keshen, Reena’s CEO, of the early days. “The sense of inclusion, everyone has a place in the community, we need to find homes, we need to get people out of an institutional setting, and we have to protect people for life. That drive, that passion was there…and it became infectious.”
Sandy took on the role of Executive Director of what was then called Reena Foundation in 1976, and hit the ground running. Sandy’s work in the early days of Reena was focused on advocacy not just for the institutionalized, but also for individuals and their families living in the community without resources. She worked diligently in the 1970’s and 1980’s, cultivating relationships with families, communities, and government to help chart a course through the unnavigated waters of community inclusion.
Sandy had the opportunity to engage provincial ministry staff and develop relationships that helped move not just Reena, but the entire developmentally disabled community forward. “It was a time when you could get close to people,” recalls Bryan Keshen. “She got close to ministry staff …they would go for lunch…she even invited the deputy minister to our house for (Passover) Seder.” Whatever it took to get the job done, Sandy was known for never saying ‘no’ but asking ‘how?’.
“The word creativity always makes me think of Sandy Keshen,” says Ann Szabo, Reena Resource Manager who worked with Sandy for 35 years. “No is not in our vocabulary. And if you’re not going to say no, you’re going to have to be creative about what you’re going to do. Creativity is what you need in order to grow when other people aren’t.” And grow is exactly what Reena did under Sandy Keshen.
“Sandy was an amazing leader,” says Sandy Stemp, Reena COO, who worked with Keshen for 30+ years. “She was respected as a visionary and a leader, not just in developmental services, but in multiple different sectors…many of which still talk about her and are still influenced by her style and her reminders of inclusion.”
Rabbi Joseph Kelmanz’’tl credited Sandy with building a model for both Jewish and non-Jewish agencies, not just at home, but around the world, “Sandy developed good relationships with government agencies and others and as a result, Reena earned the support and respect of the entire community.” Sandy, while guided by Jewish values, always believed, “…that we have a responsibility to each other. To me repairing the world does not just mean the Jewish world.”
Over the years Sandy Keshen has been recognized in numerous ways for her dedication and hard work. Awards usually came with the invitation to do more hard work and appointments to both municipal and provincial organizations soon followed. However, according to son Bryan, the accolades that meant the most came from her peers, including being the inaugural recipient of The Gordy Wolfe Award for Jewish Communal Professional Leadership. “It’s one thing to be the guru for the rest of the world…but being recognized in your own community…(that’s) peer acceptance.”
“A mentor to many”, according to Arlene Margolese, former Volunteer Coordinator and Manager of Faith and Cultural Services, who worked with Sandy for many years. “Sandy was a true visionary with incredible ideas and leadership abilities. She allowed us to grow, giving us opportunities to develop skills we never knew we possessed,” says Arlene.
“A leader by example”, according to former Tamir director, Mark Palmer, who recalls telling Sandy about a theatrical production the Ottawa organization was putting on of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The event was a truly inclusive joint production with individuals with developmental disabilities and professional and amateur actors in the mainstream community. When Sandy heard about it, she sent a busload of Reena individuals to Ottawa to support the show. “And not only that,” says Palmer, “but they created a beautiful piece of art that still hangs on the wall in Tamir today. Sandy always acted with passion, with caring, with leadership to take something up a notch and show people this is how it can be done…not in an arrogant way, no, just demonstrating by example all the time.”
Sandy was the first in the office and the last to leave according to Ann Szabo. “I learned a great lesson from her,” says Szabo. “Somebody wanted something from us once and I said, ‘well maybe if we do that, then we can get them to do this for us.’ But Sandy rejected the suggestion of quid pro quo saying “…it should never be that you expect something back. You just do it because that’s why we’re here.”
What amazes James Sejjengo, Reena Resource Manager, who also worked with Sandy for close to 30 years, is her vision. Over the years James recalls having had conversations with Sandy about what the future of Reena would look like, and most of the things they talked about came to fruition including The Toby and Henry Battle Developmental Centre, The Reena Community Residence, and the Lou Fruitman Residence.
“A short lady, but a giant figure.”
That is what former Reena Chief Financial Officer and 30+ year employee Sol Fleising calls Sandy Keshen. “An amazing lady…a selfless individual who led by example. So many of the staff would have given their right arms for her. This organization would not be where it is today without the effort and the toil and the industriousness of Sandy Keshen,” says Fleising. After 41 years building Reena into a sector leader, Sandy was asked, upon her retirement, what her wish was for the future of Reena. “This is going to sound really strange,” said Keshen. “I don’t think Reena needs to exist. I really believe that if we really think of all systems as being inclusive then (Reena individuals) are part of every population. Any service should have service for the population Reena serves. I would love to not have a Reena dedicated to individuals with special needs. But I would like all the special needs services to be part of the larger service system.”
Thanks to Sandy Keshen’s diligent work Reena continues to build upon the sturdy foundation she helped construct.
Creating A Joyful Summer: Camp Reena
The generous donation by Joe and Helen Bermanz’’l of a 52-acre camp just outside of Toronto became a haven for individuals with developmental disabilities. With 50% of the campers coming directly from institutions, a summer break at the retreat near Orangeville was an amazing experience for both campers and staff alike.
Read about how Camp Reena grew, evolved, and became a model for outreach programs year-round.
Creating A Joyful Summer: Camp Reena
In 1975 individuals with developmental disabilities and their families got a chance to experience what for others was a rite of passage with the opening of Camp Reena. The summer retreat offered quality recreational programs in a beautiful country setting with kosher accommodations for young adults and adults, fifty percent of which were coming directly from institutions. It was also a chance to offer family members some respite. The property was a generous gift from Joe and Helen Bermanz’’l who donated the 52-acre leisure resource centre, camp and associated real estate in Caledon hills, 45 minutes northwest of Toronto.
Rochelle Goldman Brown started at Camp Reena the first year it opened. She was working at Camp Northland, and they needed experienced staff for Camp Reena, so she joined a group of staff brought over to help. “We didn’t know the population that was going to be there so when we got there, walking into a group of people who had just come out of institutions was totally mind blowing. Within 5 minutes all the stigma and preconceived ideas were completely gone. I had made new friends.” In fact, not only had she made new friends she made friends out of people she had only heard of.
Goldman-Brown grew up next to the Edson family and one of the children from the family used to tell her about their uncle who was locked away in an institution and made it sound very scary…fast forward to the first year at Camp Reena, and who walks up to her and introduces himself, but Henry Edson.
“He always introduced himself…it was always, ‘Hi, I’m Henry Edson”. So, when he said his name, I’ll never forget it, I had shivers going up and down my arms, thinking, this is the guy, and there was a family resemblance,” she realized this was whom she had heard about “and I couldn’t believe it because he was such a nice guy”, not anything like she had pictured.
Sandy Stemp had never worked with people with developmental disabilities either when she took the job as camp nurse. She recounts working with Reena executive director Sandy Keshen who would go and find Jewish residents in the Huronia Institution and tell her “We’re going to bring these people out.” Stemp recalls “we spent days and weeks in institutions doing assessments and advocating for people to come out. It was truly a labour of advocacy and love “.
When they did get to camp, campers would enjoy a variety of programs including swimming, arts and crafts, Judaica, excursions, dances, and theme days. The hardest part of Camp, according to staff, “was on the last day when the institutional vans would pull up and we knew our friends had to go back.”
Stan Zynoberg, former Director of Camp Reena, says they would recruit all kinds of university students for staff. “Anybody who worked there, it was a special experience and a memory for life because working with individuals is very different from working with other people. The love that they can express…they may not be able to verbalize things in a regular fashion, but you can see it in their eyes, in their movements and how they come and give you a hug. So, the gratification the staff would get, the appreciation…is very different.”
“One of the beautiful things that we used to do on Shabbat” says Zynoberg, “was we built an ark, and carried it on poles to each cabin. And we would sing, and each cabin would come out and everybody would dress in white, and we had a giant parade, a procession to come into the dining hall and do a couple of shabbat programs.”
There was one camper, recalls Zynoberg, Michael Ludwig, “who would sing at the top of his lungs, all the different shirim (Hebrew songs), Zmirah, and benching. One time I met his father and said your son is amazing. I can’t believe how he has so much ‘Ruach” (spirit) and able to sing, and he said, well, we’re not Jewish! But that shows you the effect that it had.”
As Camp Reena continued to thrive in the 1980’s, non-supported campers were recruited to be a part of an integrated camp experience. The success of that integration led to Reena supported campers integrating into mainstream Jewish overnight camps in a series of pilot projects that were all successes.
In 1992, the shift in philosophy towards integration into mainstream camps along with other economic issues brought about the decision to sell the camp. In part, the feeling was that a camp setting no longer met the needs of older clients. A new cottage program was introduced where Reena supported individuals moved to rented cottages in places like Wasaga beach and Jackson’s point and participate in house activities, community outings and life-skills enhancement.
Camp Reena continues today as a summer day program in the city. While the original Camp Reena is no longer, the connections that were made there continue to last.
Rochelle Goldman Brown has been with Reena and Chai-Tikvah for over 40 years and is now executive director of Chai-Tikvah. Sandy Stemp has been with Reena for 36 years and is now COO of Reena. Stan Zynoberg has been with Reena for 32 years and is now Reena’s Property Manager.
The House That Started It All
Reena Founding Chair Rabbi Joseph Kelmanz’’tl liked to call Reena’s first group home on Luverne Avenue “the house that started it all.” However, the road to Luverne Avenue was a bumpy one filled with NIMBY-ism (Not in my backyard), prejudice and municipal red tape.
Read about how the determination of those who were fighting for our communities most vulnerable, and their supporters, overcame numerous obstacles to prevail.
The House That Started It All
Referred to by Rabbi Joseph Kelmanz’’tl as “the home that got Reena started” Reena’s first group home at 12 Luverne Avenue faced zoning problems and bitter opposition from the neighbourhood and community associations.
The establishment of group homes in Toronto in the early 1970’s was not welcomed in most areas due to the lack of education and understanding of individuals with developmental disabilities at the time. In the case of Reena’s first attempt at a group home in North York, the opposition was so strong that it forced a deferral of Reena’s application while both sides prepared arguments supporting their cases.
A marathon four-hour North York City Council meeting heard lawyers, sociologists, ratepayers’ association, and parents of children with developmental disabilities argue their side. Rabbi Kelman asked the residents to understand and to “help ‘retarded’ adults be contributing members of society.”
Reena parent Rochelle Carradyz’’l speaking for “her daughter and all handicapped children who are not dead yet and could benefit from the atmosphere of a group home” said children with these handicaps are forced to live at home and their parents worry about what will happen when they’re gone and not around to take care of them. A sentiment shared by many parents of children with developmental disabilities.
Eventually a bylaw was instituted in North York that made it easier for group homes for individuals with developmental disabilities to be established, the Reena application was accepted, and Luverne Avenue became a reality.
Outstanding support also came from North York Mayor Mel Lastmanz’’l, Councillor Irving Chapleyz’’l and School Trustee Elsa Chandlerz’’l who helped establish the right to open one group home per neighbourhood. Also leading the fight for those who could not fight for themselves were people like Sam Handlerz’’l, Jeanne Tanenbaumz’’l, Syrma Kochberg, Marilyn and Bert Raphaelz’’l, Eleanor London and Sandy Keshen whose tenacity helped grow Reena.
Reena CEO Bryan Keshen was a child at the time but remembers the events leading up to Luverne as one of his early defining moments, “I remember (I was with my mother) knocking on doors and talking to people and then seeing the positive reception because of the connection to the people who were involved with Reena, and the ultimate support that was given by North York council and by the neighbours to open the first homes of Reena was a warm feeling as a young kid to watch a community that cares.”
The original group home on Luverne housed six individuals who worked with supervisory staff to develop life skills such as shopping, food preparation, banking, house cleaning and using public transportation.
In 1976 Reena established its second group home on Orchardview Avenue, with another home on Lonsmount Drive opening in 1979. Residents were still coming directly from institutions and Reena began to recognize the difficult task of removing individuals with multiple challenges. The Lonsmount home made an innovative attempt to bring together individuals with varying needs. With that success, Reena’s fourth home on Loewsmoor, for the first time, brought together individuals in need of little support with individuals in need of more complex support.
The eighties and nineties saw a huge growth for Reena group homes including some specialty homes like the Ruden Crescent home in 1991, which helped Reena continue to repatriate people with multiple disabilities from nursing homes and other facilities.
With the turn of the century came the development of more group homes designed to accommodate more specific groups like the Al and Faye Mintz Elder home in 2000, the Martin and Heather Goose home for adult men with autism which opened in 2001, the Shore home for young adults which opened in 2005, as well as the Robbins family group home for women opened in 2018.
What began with six residents on Luverne Avenue has grown to an organization that serves over 1000 individuals and their families and has become a leader in housing in the developmental and mental health sector.
Reena was officially incorporated in 1973, however the groundwork for Reena was laid years before when a few parents of children with special needs approached Rabbi Joseph Kelman z’’tl of Toronto’s Beth Emeth Bais Yehudah Synagogue for help.
Read about how Toronto’s Jewish community stepped up to deal with Ontario’s de-institutionalization of individuals with developmental disabilities in the early 1970’s and how Reena Foundation was born.
Henry Edson z’’l, a 39-year-old individual with developmental disabilities, lived at the Huronia Regional Centre, once known as the Orillia Asylum for Idiots, for 27 years. He slept in a room with 40 people and instead of having a shower, he would be hosed down while strapped into a bed. As a Jewish resident, he was given a box of matzah at Passover and told to celebrate.
In today’s world the thought of institutionalizing children and adults with developmental disabilities is seen as a profound injustice. However, as recently as 50 years ago, it was generally accepted that individuals with developmental disabilities belonged in custodial institutions. They lived in isolation from their families, friends and home communities and were denied the rights and responsibilities most people take for granted.
The Jewish community offered little support for parents with children with developmental disabilities at the time. Not only was there a lack of services for individuals with developmental disabilities and a lack of education options, but there was also a lack of understanding and space in Jewish organizations for individuals with developmental disabilities.
In 1968, a group of parents of children with special needs including the Carrady, Silverstein, and Starr families approached Rabbi Joseph Kelman z’’tl, spiritual leader of The Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue hoping he would help build a school and social club for their children.
Rabbi Kelman solicited support from a number of congregants including Joseph and Helen Berman and the Ezra and Kadima School and social club which offered religious education and bar mitzvah training for individuals with developmental disabilities opened in the synagogue.
The Kadima School was one of the first schools of its kind in North America for individuals with developmental disabilities offering Jewish children and teenagers the opportunity to attend an accredited Hebrew and religious school program. Aiming to provide a meaningful Jewish experience, Rabbi Kelman also pioneered a special bar/bat mitzvah program for children with special needs believing that “no one should be left behind”.
Kelman once recalled the parents’ reaction when he first planned a joint bar mitzvah for six boys. The parents asked if he really intended to expose their sons before the entire congregation. And he answered, “You’re absolutely right I do!”
Founded by Rabbi Kelman and Kadima parents, the school was a catalyst and inspiration for the development of Reena Foundation.
By the early 1970s, a growing awareness of the problems with institutions and the beginnings of changing attitudes prompted the Ontario government to move towards repatriating people out of institutions and into the community. But where would they go? An accountant and developer, Lou Fruitmanz”l was Rabbi Kelman’s ‘go-to’ person at Beth Emeth Bais Yehudah Synagogue. “The rabbi had a great idea to help this population,” recalls Lisa Fruitman, “but he had no way to put it into action. How do we do this? Where do we find the funds? And he went to my father because he was always that person that would help solve these problems and figure it out. It was my father who said, ‘this is what we need to do and how we need to do it’. He then got busy together with the Rabbi and others and they worked together to make Reena a reality. In 1973, the Reena Foundation was established to “provide community residences for the developmentally handicapped people of the Jewish faith”.
An 11-year-old child at the time, Rabbi Jay Kelman remembers overhearing the conversation that took place in his parent’s home. “They were meeting in our living room to discuss the founding and they were passing around various names (to call the organization) and I think one of the ideas was ‘Tikvah’ which means hope. And I remember my father telling us there wasn’t hope in the classical sense that people are going to become like everybody else, but they can have lots of joy and happiness. So, they named it Reena, which means Joy, because everybody can be happy and joyful. And that is the overreaching goal…that everyone can have a happy and joyful life.”
Reena’s main concern at the time was for those adults returning to the community from institutions, but they wanted to help those who were living with their families and wanted a more independent way of life as well. The goal was simple: bring people with diverse abilities into the mainstream of community life, assist them to become as self-sufficient as possible and live their lives in a meaningful and dignified way.
“Rabbi Kelman and Reena saw how much I could do if I really tried. They gave me a chance and I showed them they were right to believe in me.”-Henry Edson
Henry Edson became one of Reena’s first clients moving out of the Huronia institution and into Reena’s first group home where he lived for three years before moving out into his own apartment with a friend. Henry was gainfully employed, celebrated his bar mitzvah under the tutelage of Rabbi Kelman, and eventually retired into a Reena Elder home. Henry passed away in 2009 having lived the second part of his life independently with the support of Reena.