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Thursday, October 2, 2014

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Toronto sisters raise money to aid homeless youth

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Jaime, right, and Alexandra Eckler

TORONTO — Jaime and Alexandra Eckler have been on a mission to raise money for Toronto’s homeless youth, one glass of lemonade at a time.

 The sisters, ages eight and six respectively, held their first lemonade stand in 2009, after Jaime encountered a homeless man sitting under the Gardiner Expressway.

“I went to a basketball game when I was four years old, and on the way home I saw a guy sitting under a bridge. I asked my dad who he was and why was he sitting there. He told me he was a homeless man. I felt bad so I gave him the apple I had,” Jaime said.

Later that summer, inspired by the man she helped, Jaime wanted to start raising money for homeless people.

Their mother, Sharon Zohar, had heard the story of Amanda Belzowski, a teenager who has raised more than $200,000 for the Heart and Stroke Foundation since holding her first lemonade stand at two years old. Zohar took her daughters to meet Belzowski, and Jaime immediately decided she wanted to raise money the same way.

Over the last four years, the Eckler sisters have raised more than $13,000 for various homeless organizations, including Raising the Roof and Eva’s Initiatives.

Now, for their fifth annual fundraiser, the Ecklers have mobilized their entire school, the Montessori Jewish Day School, to take part in their charity.

The students, along with Jaime and Alexandra, will mount a photography exhibit on May 5 at Beth David Synagogue, with all proceeds going to Ve’ahavta, a Canadian humanitarian relief organization. The exhibit has been registered with the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival and will include the children’s original digital photography that revolves around the theme of homelessness.

The festival of pictures, which runs from 2 to 5 p.m., will feature music, games and plenty of lemonade.

“I thought it would be fun to include my friends in all the work because it’s so much fun,” said Jaime. “They seem to really like doing it. I can tell by the smiles on their faces.”

Zohar said her family hopes to attract hundreds of people to the event and create media attention. “The more people who know about the work the girls are doing, the closer we can get to reaching our goal of raising $10,000 this year. I also hope our school community is recognized and rewarded for their hard work and participation. Jaime and Alexandra are very proud of their school and are happy to share this event with them.”

To show their appreciation for the girls’ accomplishments, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford have sent personal letters to Jaime and Alexandra. The sisters were also invited as special guests to several engagements, including Furniture Bank and the Ontario Triullium Foundation to talk about their cause.

More support came in the form of donations and offers to build the girls a free website (www.jaals.ca). One particularly interesting proposal came from a medic who wanted to promote the cause at the London Olympics by wearing a Jaime and Alexandra T-shirt during the games.

Though Jaime and Alexandra are young, Zohar said they show a strong interest and dedication to their cause. “I am very proud of the work the girls have done and most importantly their commitment to want to do it year after year. It’s not easy for kids to keep their attention on one project for so long.”

They’re learning that “doing something” can make a big difference, she said. “As much as they may want things to change, they know nothing will happen if they don’t put in the effort.”

Jaime said she wishes homeless people “could have a life like ours because they are people just like us.”

To express her feelings about being charitable, Alexandra said, “I love doing this event every year because it’s so much fun and it brings out all our friends and family. I love seeing everyone so happy on this day.”

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