Reena marks 40 years with fundraiser

Pictured, from left, Gary Sim, Ann Szabo, Steven Justein

TORONTO — Forty years ago, five families who had children with developmental disabilities got together to try to find a place for their kids to live in the Jewish community.

The alternative for families in their situation was often to hand over the children and have them become wards of the state.

That small group – with the crucial guidance of co-founder Rabbi Joseph Kelman, spiritual leader of Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue, who had previously set up a number of programs for children with developmental disabilities – became Reena, a non-profit social service agency dedicated to integrating individuals with developmental disabilities into the mainstream of society.

The agency now has about 500 clients living in its homes and some 1,200 others involved with the organization, which offers about 15 outreach programs.

Steven Justein, a longtime board member, whose sister, Shari, 53, is a Reena client, said that although his family was not in the initial group, they have been involved with Reena for almost 40 years.

“When Shari was young, my parents constantly worried about what would happen to her. Then they were introduced to Reena, and life changed.”

He said his sister lives in her own apartment with some assistance, takes the bus to Baycrest, where she volunteers, and cooks herself meals.

“Most important, however, Reena taught her to have dignity, self-worth and confidence. That’s why I volunteer. I can never give back enough for what Reena has done for my sister.”

Ann Szabo, Reena’s resource manager, for day, outreach respite and residential, said the Reena Foundation’s first annual Exceptional Abilities Series, featuring former U.S. presidential adviser David Axelrod, which takes place Oct. 8 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, is raising funds for Reena’s outreach programs.

A former senior adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, Axelrod has a child with developmental disabilities who lives in a home similar to a Reena home in Chicago.

“We get no government funding, so we need to raise $400,000 in order to run these programs, which are lifelines for many families,”Szabo said.

Reena’s dream, she said, is to have a $9-million endowment so the programs – which include an after-school club, a summer and March break camp, a Sunday Friends Club, a swim club, an athletic club, a cooking club and residential and children’s respite – are never at risk.

Also in its 40th anniversary year, Reena is set to launch a $2-million campaign to create a Reena Behavioural Home in Richmond Hill behind Mackenzie Regional Hospital. The specially designed home will house people with significant behavioural issues associated with their developmental disability.

Reena Foundation president Gary Sim said the home is a new model for the agency. 

Szabo said Reena has purchased the land and is now visiting other agencies before meeting with architects.

“This is a home – both permanent and respite – for people with the most challenging of needs.”

It will be built with the necessary safety and damage-resistant materials, and there will be design elements that allow residents to both co-reside and be separated, as their behaviour dictates.

Sim said people with developmental disabilities are living much longer than they did decades ago, and to accommodate these seniors, Reena built one of the first elder homes on the continent  for people with developmental disabilities.

“We have also partnered with Baycrest, Cummer Lodge and Maple Health Centre to support seniors in long-term care,” he added. “It breaks my heart when I think about what these seniors, [who didn’t have Reena’s services when they were young] missed along the way.”

For more event information and tickets to Axelrod’s talk, visit, e-mail [email protected], or call 905-764-1081 ext. 31.