More than 240 players participated in a hockey tournament that raised $135,000 for the Joel Schwartz Endowment Fund at the Reena Foundation.
The second annual Joel Schwartz Memorial Hockey Tournament (JSMHT), held on March 11 at Chesswood Arena in Toronto, was created in honour of Schwartz, who died in 2009 at age 25, two weeks after he returned from a Birthright Israel trip.
Diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, Schwartz was a client of the Reena Foundation, an organization that provides services and programs for people with developmental disabilities so they can realize their full potential.
Through the endowment fund, the CIE Birthright-Israel Reena Participant Program gives young people with developmental disabilities the opportunity to experience a Birthright trip to Israel. With the help of a Reena “shadow,” who is trained to assist a client with special needs, program participants are fully integrated with non-disabled peers.
The endowment fund ensures that shadows can be sent with Reena clients on Birthright trips. “We know [Joel] would be honoured to have initiated a charity for others like him to grow and develop into mature adults while finding their places in the world,” said Jonathan Schwartz, Joel’s brother and founder of the tournament with friends Zack Belzberg and Jesse Abrams.
“Joel was a breath of fresh air for many of the people who knew him well, and he leaves behind a legacy bigger than most would after a life of 25 years. He continues to remind family and close friends of the values of respect, family, friendship, and, most importantly, what it takes to become a better person.”
In the weeks that followed Schwartz’s passing, “the community came together in a way that indicated the impact that both Joel and his family had, and continue to have, on those around them. We knew that we had to find a way to commemorate Joel’s valuable legacy and rally the community behind this important cause,” said Belzberg.
“Joel loved to watch his brother’s hockey games and would be so happy to see his friends and hundreds of others come together in his honour.”
The tournament featured games, food, a silent auction, a free skate and a guest appearance by Hockey Hall of Famer and former cabinet minister, Ken Dryden.
“Throughout the evening, I hope people developed a more informed understanding of who Joel was, why it’s important to preserve his legacy and how they have contributed to an exciting new initiative created in his honour,” said Belzberg.
This year’s tournament committee introduced Joel’s Ongoing Inclusion Initiative, which will oversee the use of proceeds from the tournament and invest annually in one new program that supports inclusion initiatives at Reena, he said.
“Our committee has dedicated their time, efforts and resources to ensure that those in our community who are living with developmental disabilities are granted the same treatment and life enjoyment that we have been offered,” said Jonathan Schwartz. “In doing so, we hope to nurture their mental, emotional and physical growth while empowering them to strengthen their confidence.”
Belzberg said the tournament has given him “the ability to witness first-hand the incredible generosity and cohesiveness of our community. Thousands of people have come together as players, volunteers, donors and fans in support of Joel, the Reena Foundation and our committee.”
Eric Sherkin, a tournament participant whose brother has autism, said the event surpassed his expectations. “I jumped at the chance to come back for the second year. My brother is a longtime Reena client and still participates in Reena programs all year long. I’ve seen first-hand how amazing an organization it is, and it truly needs the continued support of the community to be able to provide the kinds of services upon which so many people rely.”
Sherkin said that “giving Reena clients the chance to participate in Birthright Israel while still getting the one-on-one support they require is a fantastic initiative, and it seems as though that experience meant a great deal for Joel Schwartz. If we can spread that feeling to more Reena clients, that’s a wonderful thing.”
For more information about the Joel Schwartz Memorial Hockey Tournament, visit www.jsmht.org.