Visionary, innovative, ground-breaking and sector leader are just some of the words that have been used to describe Sandy Keshen over her 41-year tenure at Reena.
An immigrant child, who dreamed of being a doctor, Sandy said her dream came true. “I’m able to be an agent of change…and help others”. Sandy studied preschool education with a focus on special needs education, anthropology, and dabbled in sociology. But it was in an effort to get a proper education for her daughter that she began getting involved with the plight of the disabled in the community. The lack of space in organized Jewish religion for children with differences frustrated Keshen and she eventually joined with Rabbi Kelman and other concerned parents in establishing an organization to find a housing solution for the Jewish community. “We all need a sense of belonging,” Keshen said, “I think we have a responsibility as Jews and as a community to be as open as we can”.
“It’s a justice framework”, says son and current Reena President and CEO Bryan Keshen, “She was driven by the values of justice…we can make it better, it can be done…that justice lens. If this is unjust let’s fix it.”
Bryan recalls when his mother joined the board while Reena was still a grassroots organization. “When my mom was invited to become Executive Director it became part of every day of our lives, every moment and every aspect of our life.” At age 12, Bryan remembers his mother telling him she needed to borrow his bedroom. She was bringing someone from Huronia who had no where to live until they finished building the group home, and he did come to stay in Bryan’s bedroom for a couple of weeks.
“When I think about my mom and her devotion to Reena it was a 24/7 element. Many dinners got burnt because she was busy on a call and forgot. We all had to learn to cook…it was a survival piece.” However according to Bryan, she had an amazing commitment to both Reena and family and balancing that together.
Integral to Sandy Keshen’s success at Reena was her husband, Murray Keshen. “My father was so devoted to supporting my mom and loved her so much. He became integral to Reena…he is the untold story of Reena,” says Bryan. “From picking up 600 oranges to deliver or fixing the plumbing in a group home …he would just do it and he was so devoted.”
“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,” according to Sandy.
One of the ways Keshen was able to keep accomplish so much, so quickly is because she developed a culture of risk taking and trust. She believed in her team and let them do their jobs while she focused on doing hers. Always one to believe in sharing and collaboration, Sandy led the way not just for Reena, but for the entire developmental services sector. When people asked for Sandy’s help, they were shocked to find how willingly she helped handing over fully completed grant proposals for other agencies to use.
At the forefront of her work, an unwavering belief in social justice for individuals with developmental disabilities. It was Sandy who fought for the Toby and Henry Battle Developmental Centre to be built in a visible location saying, “It was very important 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.”
Sandy not only advocated for the Jewish community but reached beyond the community to raise awareness and worked tirelessly on behalf of all vulnerable people. Through the faith and culture network, Keshen helped roman catholic, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese and other communities establish their own social agencies.
Sandy Keshen’s career and tireless work on behalf of individuals with diverse abilities will be commemorated as part of Reena’s 50th anniversary with the naming of the Reena Community Residence on the Lebovic Campus in her honour.