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Thursday, October 8, 2015

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Hillel roars in support of terminally ill teen

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U of T student Laura Greenfield displays her message of support for Olivia Wise.

TORONTO — It’s a video that has touched almost a million people: 16-year-old Olivia Wise, sitting in her new wheelchair, singing Katy Perry’s hit Roar.

“I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire,” she sings as a smile grows on her face.

And the Toronto teen is indeed a fighter, keeping her spirits up even as she’s been fighting an inoperable brain tumour that she discovered early last year after suffering a seizure while on vacation in Florida.

When York University business student Zev Gasner saw the video, his first urge was to help.

“I had this overwhelming sense of indescribable influence,” he said. “I wanted to go out and do something for her.”

Even Perry herself was moved by the video, replying with one of her own in which she sends her love to Wise.

Gasner said he watched the video over and over for a week, then decided he had to act.

As vice-president of social affairs for York’s Hillel chapter, he suggested that the group should send well wishes to the terminally ill teen.

Hillel students decided to put together a physical and video scrapbook to give to her family.

“What’s really special about this case was that she’s a teenage girl in Toronto,” Gasner said. “Everyone could really see themselves in this position, or know someone in this position.”



Danielle Miller, Hillel’s co-ordinator of Jewish student life at the University of Toronto, echoed that sentiment in explaining why her group joined the initiative.

“She’s only two years younger than our first-year students, so this really hit home for them,” she said, adding that the fact Wise is Jewish really made them realize that this could be a girl they might know from school or camp.

The idea snowballed as others caught wind of the plan. Gasner invited his brother, a high school student at Yeshivat Or Chaim, to join in the scrapbook and to invite his classmates, along with students at Ulpanot Orot, to take part. Meanwhile, someone else brought students at the Anne and Max Tanebaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto into the loop.

As word spread, students from a number of high schools – not just Jewish ones – sent in scrapbook pages.

Laura Greenfield was one of the U of T participants. She can be seen in the scrapbook holding a sign telling Wise to keep on singing and being a positive inspiration.

“Even through I’ve heard her condition is getting progressively worse, she still has a positive attitude and that’s amazing,” Greenfield said.

Wise’s cousin, Jeff Kassel, told CNN her conditioned has deteriorated since she made her video in early September, and she’s now drifting in and out of consciousness.

In total, some 1,000 pages have been included in the scrapbook.

As well, Wise’s family has set up a fund in her honour through SickKids Foundation to collect donations for brain tumour research. The initial goal of $50,000 was quickly surpassed, so her family raised it to $150,000.

Miller said situations like this are difficult, because you want to help, but you might not be able to do much.

“Other than support and love… it’s kind of hard to do much else,” Miller said, adding, however, that people can certainly make financial contributions.

But Gasner said the ultimate goal of the initiative was to show her family how much she has inspired others.

He noted that participants were mostly people who have never met Wise, but were touched by her voice and her story.

“It showed her family how much support is out here for them,” he said.

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