TORONTO — Toronto’s Zareinu Educational Centre for children with special needs is gearing up for its 11th annual Moveathon fundraiser, a two-part bike ride and community festival slated for early and mid-June.
In advance of the Moveathon, the centre – which has provided an array of treatments in a Jewish setting for children with physical and developmental needs for the last 20 years – is in the midst of an extended education campaign targeting children in mainstream day schools.
The objective of Zareinu’s Project Outreach is to teach the children how to interact with and accept their peers who have special needs, by engaging them in role-playing scenarios and experiential exercises that simulate what it would be like to live with a special need.
A typical example would be that a child could be asked to put on mittens and then encouraged to try and button up his jacket to see what it’s like to live with motor skill limitations, said Randy Spiegel, the centre’s executive director for the last six years.
As of last week, Zareinu employees had already gone out numerous times to various schools around the city to help advocate for kids with special needs, he told The CJN.
“What’s important for all of us, not just children, is to have contact with people who are not always the same as us… and break down the barriers.”
Project Outreach “is available particularly where we’re looking at a child who will be part-time at Zareinu and part-time in another setting or host school” Spiegel said.
Zareinu students range from age six weeks to 21 years, and the centre can serve 70 children. Spiegel said he wished he could double that number, adding that there are still hundreds of “Zareinu-eligible” children out there.
“We need a new facility for these children. We need more spaces… and we desperately need more core funding,” he said. “We need to create awareness among everyone in the community… that we’re not all alike. One in five children has some kind of learning disability. We have an obligation to be accepting of this and do everything we can to allow those kids to achieve their own potential [and] also prop up their family units.”
It costs anywhere from $40,000 to $50,000 a year to have a child at Zareinu, Spiegel noted.
He said it’s “critical” for Jewish parents of children with special needs to know that there’s a place for them when they find out their kids will need the help.
“Most parents, when they have a child, the first thing they hear is ‘mazal tov’ from their doctor,” Spiegel said. “Our parents don’t hear that. Instead, they hear, ‘We have to talk.’”
Often, those families fall off the Jewish community radar while caring for their children, and Zareinu plays a vital role in bringing them back into the fold, Spiegel said.
“It’s our human and Jewish responsibility,” he said. “The beauty of these children and who they are is inspirational.”
But since they are a non-profit centre, getting the funding for that goal rests primarily in the hands of private sponsors and the community.
That’s where the Moveathon comes in.
Last year, the fundraiser netted $1 million, and organizers are hoping to top that this June.
Hershey Weinberg, the founder and chair of the Zareinu Moveathon, started it as an act of tikkun olam a decade ago after a suggestion by his rabbi.
“When I look at the parents and and the hurdles they have to overcome, I have to give something back to God for giving me healthy children and grandchildren,” he said.
Weinberg told The CJN he chose the name “Moveathon” because almost half of Zareinu kids are “mobility-challenged.”
According to Weinberg, the 2007 fundraiser drew nearly 5,000 participants.
“This year, we have the most picturesque ride, because [the route] goes along the Niagara escarpment,” he said, adding that this year’s cycling tour, slated for Sunday, June 1, has added a third option for riders.
On top of the traditional 50-kilometre and 100-km routes, a new 162.5-km “pro-tour” has been included to attract cyclists and sponsors from around the world.
The Zareinu Moveathon Festival, a full-day affair featuring food, rides and entertainment is scheduled for Sunday, June 22, at Downsview Park.
For more information, visit www.moveathon.com