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Seriously ill kids join in back-to-school rush

Children enjoyed Donald Berman Chai Lifeline's back-to-school party and left with full backpacks.

Donald Berman Chai Lifeline provides emotional and practical support to seriously ill children and their families.

This is the Montreal branch of Chai Lifeline Canada, which is part of an international Jewish charitable organization. Its staff and volunteers ease the turmoil of a child’s life-altering disease or the burden of coping with a chronic condition.

“The word ‘no’ is not in our lexicon,” said Montreal co-ordinator Stu Guttman. “We always say, ‘Yes, how can we help?’ It’s all about relieving their stress and letting them know they are not alone.”

Parent Jonathan Sinclair agrees. “It’s a fabulous organization. There is nothing they won’t do for you.”

Sinclair’s nine-year-old daughter, Maya, was born with the rare Axenfeld-Rieger syndrome, which primarily affects the eyes. Maya has already had two surgeries for glaucoma.

She is also small for her age and tires easily. Her medical appointments are frequent. This was the first year she could attend school full-time.

They were at Chai Lifeline’s back-to-school party, complete with an inflatable castle, music and snacks, held outside its premises. The kids had their pick of backpacks filled with donated school supplies.

What was important was not the gift, but “creating some semblance of normalcy,” said Guttman. “Even if they may be spending it in hospital, they know this is back-to-school time and would feel left out if they didn’t prepare like everyone else.”

Chai Lifeline is an initiative of the Orthodox community, but serves everyone, even non-Jews, he said. A generous bequest from the Donald Berman Foundation in 2014 allowed the opening of an office and drop-in centre in Montreal.

Berman, who died in 2001, never had children, but his greatest delight was sponsoring visits to La Ronde amusement park for thousands of needy kids. The Fort Erie, Man., native made his fortune as a concessionaire at Expo 67 continuing into the 1980s at La Ronde.

Fittingly, Chai Lifeline’s other end-of-summer celebration was a trip to La Ronde for over 200 people.

Fun activities are run through the year. The centre is a comfy place filled with toys, games, books and arts-and-crafts supplies. Practical assistance may include meals, transportation and free tutoring.

There are five staff members in Montreal, including Guttman, who rely on about 300 volunteers such as Zack Steinlauf.


The affection Chaim has for his “big brother”, Steinlauf, is written all over his smiling face. He doesn’t have to think about cancer around him. Steinlauf, a 23-year-old student has been volunteering for four years at Chai Lifeline. He has completed two marathons held in Miami in January that benefit Chai Lifeline.

“It’s not easy,” Steinlauf admits, referring to the emotional toll of watching kids suffer. “My stock answer is that it is just the right thing to do.”

He spends at least an hour a week with Chaim, and “endless” hours other ways, including going to the hospital sometimes three or four times a week.

Another major fundraiser is Bike4Chai, in which 10 Montreal cyclists each year make the two-day, journey from Pennslyvania to Camp Simcha.

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