07/06/2012 11:40 EDT | Updated 09/05/2012 05:12 EDT

Jacob's Ladder: A Story of Community Building

Jacob Schwartz is a lucky 15-year-old boy. Though he was diagnosed at birth with Canavan disease, a usually fatal illness that targets the central nervous system virtually robbing its victims of most basic human functions such as sight, speech, cognitive abilities and mobility, Jacob is still a lucky boy.

You see, Jacob has so much going for him. His parents, Ellen and Jeff are endearing optimists who have indeed given Jacob much but have also learned so much from him. Together the family is a true reflection of both strength and vision. They have never seen Canavan as a "disease". Instead they have looked for ways to transform Jacob's plight into community initiatives that gives Jacob's challenges meaning.

The Schwartz family thus founded "Jacob's Ladder" (The Canadian Foundation for the Control of Neurodegenerative Disease) in 1998 to help other families deal with this devastating disease. Surely this alone would have been enough but it didn't end there.

As plans progressed through the United Jewish Appeal Federation's Tomorrow Campaign for a state of the art Jewish communal axis in Richmond Hill, leadership of the community wanted to find ways to give back to the GTA. They wanted a real "community" hub that would incorporate recreation, education, fitness, arts and inclusion. They wanted a community centre where all, regardless of race, faith or ability would find a comfortable home. And so was born the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Community Campus. A veritable smorgasbord of life and activity that will include an educational facility, a Jewish community centre with inclusive and accessible physical and recreational facilities as well as a health and wellness centre to be run by Mount Sinai Hospital, including a family health team, services for the elderly and a new centre for the developmentally handicapped.

Imagine a one-stop pavilion where Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) Functional Pain Program, chiropractic care, massage therapy, physiotherapy, podiatry, acupuncture and a family doctor are easily and readily available to all. It is here that Ellen and Jeff chose to honour their beautiful son. Through the Jacob's Ladder Foundation the "Jacob's Ladder Therapeutic pool" was constructed. Located in the Randy Mark Stupp Aquatic Centre housed in the Schwartz /Reisman Centre, the therapeutic benefit of heated salt-water for those like Jacob transform their lives. All one needs to see is how Jacob totally relaxes while making use of this water therapy. His smile and calm will tell you the absolute pleasure the technique brings to his young and challenged life.


Jacob receiving water therapy treatment

Jacob's parents carry on a tradition that is very much part Jewish culture; giving back to community when you are able. The Jacob's Ladder Therapeutic Pool is but one example of many more in which members of the over 200,000 strong Jewish GTA community looks for ways to enhance our region and the Joseph & Wolf Lebovic Jewish Community Campus stands as a proud symbol of this generosity.

Another gift through this unique shopping centre of services is the Reena Community Residence, the largest and most significant project undertaken by Reena in its history. Reena, an agency that supports Jewish values and tradition helps integrate and work with people dealing with developmental disabilities. It is an inclusive agency open to all no matter your faith or background. Sandy Keshen, President & CEO of Reena explains that, "this 80,000 sq. ft. building will provide housing and support for up to 84 people. Individuals from Circle of Care, Jewish Family & Child, as well as Reena will include the frail elderly, those with mental health and/or developmental disabilities, young adults, women and children fleeing abuse and families with a member requiring support."

Yet it is more than just a supportive residence. It is in fact a distinctive and transformative initiative where inclusion means just that. Those with disabilities will be integrated thoroughly with those who have no disabilities providing a natural and normative interaction and environment. The way it really should be.


Construction is almost complete for the new Reena Community Residence

Historically the Jewish community has been a leader in areas of medicine, social justice, human rights and dignity. It has been this way because we as a people have always understood both the challenges and pain life brings. We are a small community that has always been grateful to the wider hub of humanity which, especially as we entered the 21st century, has allowed us to flourish by working towards eradicating hatred, antisemitism and bigotry. Thus countries like Canada have become an incubator for our success and we are honoured to be able to share that success with the wider community.

Ted Sokolsky, President and CEO of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto summed it up best, "the new Lebovic campus" he told me, "will be a place that serves everyone. It will help heal, inform, educate, strengthen and empower people from one convenient central location."


Lebovic Campus building

A campus that can bring a smile to one young boy like Jacob and the many others whose lives are so challenged makes it a welcome legacy for the future.