The children who graced the runway were the highlight of the 13th annual Zareinu fashion show Nov. 15.
More than 700 people attended the event at the Terrace Banquet Centre in Vaughan, Ont. which promotes awareness of and raises funds for the educational and treatment centre for children with physical and developmental challenges.
The show, which raised $500,000, featured professional models, members of the community who support the organization, as well as the child models. The children who confidently went down the 80-foot-long runway and received vocal appreciation from the audience included participants in the programs and children of families who support Zareinu.
The centre provides therapy and educational programs to help students with special needs engage, learn and achieve in a personalized Jewish learning environment.
The Zareinu fashion show is “probably one of the best fashion shows I’ve ever been to,” Jeanne Beker, Canadian fashion icon and MC of the event, told The CJN. “When the kids take the stage – to watch their eyes light up and their parents’ eyes light up – we all just feel such a sense of community and… a sense of empowerment,” watching the children go down the runway.
Designers presented in the show included Stephan Caras, Milli, Tara Fava, Ines di Santo, Farley Chatto, Northboys and Town Shoes.
Tony Lipsey, head of school at Zareinu told The CJN the ultimate goal is to “return the children to the mainstream.”
“We’re always considered ‘working with disabilities.’ We want to show people what kids have in terms of their ability,” he said. The goal “is to give them the skills, so they can go back into a regular classroom and be with their peers.”
With children who are “non-verbal or a little bit different, typical children tend to be afraid to approach them,” Marlene Kenley Benlolo, mother of Rachel Benlolo, a student at Zareinu, said. The “integration system through Zareinu is so important,” as the children with special needs are “integrated into typical classes and all the kids are learning how to interact, communicate and have fun.”
The younger students at Zareinu are currently situated at Leo Baeck Day School and the older students are integrated into satellite classrooms in various mainstream Jewish community schools.
Carly Fleischmann, an exceptionally successful graduate of Zareinu, and her long-term speech pathologist, Barb Nash Fenton, were honoured at the event. Over many years, Nash Fenton skilfully supported Fleischmann to express herself.
Fleischmann was “unable to communicate, but Barb was instrumental in putting a keyboard in front of her, and she started typing. She was able to find her voice, and we credit Barb with changing this child’s life,” Stacy Markin, co-chair of the fundraiser, said.
Nash Fenton was further acknowledged for her work with hundreds of students whose lives she has positively impacted.
Fleishmann has gone on to study at the University of Toronto and has hundreds of thousands of followers on social media. Many of her supporters include “families with children with special needs or families of children who are autistic,” Markin said. “She’s been an inspiration and motivates them that there’s hope.”