By Mike Cohen
Ron Suskind was the Wall Street Journal’s senior national affairs reporter from 1993 until 2000. He won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. His company, Sidekicks, is leading efforts to build a next generation of augmentative technologies to lift and support “differently-abled” communities.
But these days, the prominent Jewish media personality is best known as the father of Owen Suskind. That is because of his Academy Award nominated film (Best Documentary) called Life Animated. It is based on his book by the same name about his family’s journey with autism.
For its first ever fundraising gala, JEM Workshop came up with a brilliant format. Rent the Cinemas Guzzo Méga- Plex Sphèretech 14 in Saint-Laurent, invite Suskind to Montreal and show the film. Tickets were priced at $75 each. For $150 there was a special VIP cocktail. It was sold out.
Suskind gave a brief introduction before the show, answered questions afterwards and then did a book signing. It was a remarkable evening, with a very unique and successful format for a fundraiser which other organizations should consider emulating.
For almost 70 years, JEM workshop has been providing a safe and caring workplace for individuals with physical, emotional and intellectual disabilities in the Montreal community. Through its packaging services, support programs and specialized on-site social workers, JEM Workshop enables some of the most vulnerable members of our society to become productive and independent contributors while providing an array of valuable packaging services to many local and national companies.
The main organizing committee working with JEM Workshop Executive Director Howard Berger were co-chairs Kathy Lempert and Jessica Seidman, along with Rhonda Friedman, Angela Lehrer, Lawrence Laing, Jason Goldsmith, Danny Kay, Chuck Rubin and standout publicist Cindy Davis. Major sponsors were the Miriam Aaron Roland Charitable Fund, the Michael & David Cape Family Foundation, the Berall Family Foundation and Kaycan.
At a pre-movie cocktail, VIP guests were invited to reserve their seats in designated sections and step behind a roped off area for an absolutely delicious array of Paradise Kosher Catering hors d’oeuvres from servers and food stations offering sushi, salads, smoked meat, a hot grill and desserts. Bravo to Yehuda Ohayon, who said he loved working with the people at Cinemas Guzzo.
Among those enjoying the reception were Heidi and Mark Goldman, Marcy and Jessica Seidman, Loren Shore, Sidney Margles and Miriam Gross, Earl Eichenbaum, Lou Gordon, Saryl and Stephen Gross, Jacob Bratin from Plomberie Levine Bros, Hindy and Rory Olson, Trish Bengualid and Nedav Krasner, Lorne and Carole Cassoff, Ed and Roz Weinstein from Elran Furniture, Laurence and Rhonda Friedman from Gestion Lameer, Cheryl Lipson-Goffman, Rozlynn Weinstein, Heidi and Murray Sklar, Sheri Spunt, Brenda Gewurz of Kaycan, Julie Shurgarman and Ilan Gewurtz, Daniel Lepine, Barbara Shore, Marla Wexler, Susan Kasner from Location Ferrento, Wendy Wechsler, Shelley Smith, Sharon Bitensky from The Morris & Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation, Jeffrey Cape, Sylvie Spivack, Brenda and Harvey Charlap, Bruce Gornitsky, Carl Frymel, Norman Bercovitch, Miriam Roland, Rhona and Irwin Kramer, Leonard and Carol Berall , Michael Cape , Connie Kirsch from Caldwell Residences, Robert Bard from Dorchester Management, Corinne Zagury, Miriam Gross, Gordon Crelinsten, Michael Marcovitz, Dr. Milene and Greg Abadi Etingin, Karen Flam, from the Maimonides Foundation, David Abramovitch,,Ellen Gross, Lloyd Prizant, Mattie Chinks from Avmor, Naomi Mechaly and Marc Bernard.
At the age of three, Suskind’s son Owen suddenly stopped communicating and was later diagnosed with autism. The Suskind family eventually discovered an unusual way to unlock Owen’s silence – through immersing themselves in classic Disney animated films. Life, Animated follows the family through their extraordinary journey filled with love and resilience, and offers insight into the world of someone living with autism.
The movie is based on the book of the same title by Suskind, who was the Wall Street Journal’s senior national affairs reporter from 1993 until 2000. He won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. His company, Sidekicks, is leading efforts to build a next generation of augmentative technologies to lift and support “differently-abled” communities.
“A lot of people asked me why there was no book on this experience,” Suskind told me. “I told them that I was living a very public life and my family was private. When Owen was 19 he turned to my wife and me one night and challenged us. He was becoming more aware of how the world saw him. He said they do see him ‘as I am an unpolished gem; a diamond in the rough.’ That was a line from the film Aladdin. He went on to tell us that we were both writers and he was tired of not being seen. Well for my wife and I, that was the beginning of several long nights about whether or not we should do a book.”
Suskind said his wife Cornelia made the best point when she asked if a book like this would have helped their family. “Of coursed the answer was yes,” he said.
Suskind believes the book and the movie have helped countless thousands of people. “We gave a nudge to parents to do something that they may have been thinking about anyhow,” he said. “Now our mission keeps expanding beyond anything we ever imagined.”
Owen is now 27 years old and over the years he has shared the national media spotlight with his parents. Suskind told me that at the end of April his family will travel to the Vatican where the Pope will present Owen with medal in recognition of the role model he has become. Suskind is Jewish; his wife Cornelia Catholic. Owen and his brother Walt were raised Jewish.
Bravo to JEM Workshop for organizing this event. For almost seventy years this organization has been providing a safe and caring workplace for individuals with physical, emotional and intellectual disabilities in the Montreal community. Through its packaging services, support programs and specialized on-site social workers, JEM Workshop enables some of the most vulnerable members of our society to become productive and independent contributors while providing an array of valuable packaging services to many local and national companies.
As for the film itself, Seidman said that it does an extraordinary job at sharing one family’s ability to overcome adversity and the challenges families can face when a child or family member is living with a disability. “One powerful take away from the film is that no matter what a human beings condition is, the need to connect with others is so important,” she remarked. “The family was so driven and successful at building their son’s ability to verbally communicate when the odds were against him. Finding alternative ways is possible when we can discover the right tools. It really hit home for me that finding a way for a connection is so important. I believe this can apply to any matter of illness or ‘different abilities,’ beyond Autism Spectrum Disorder. The Suskind’s story and the way which it is told in Life, Animated stays with you.”
Seidman notes that this was in fact the first ever community outreach/educational event for JEM. The goals were to sensitize as many Montrealers about “differently-abled” people by screening the documentary film and hosting a talkback with the main storyteller and accomplished journalist Suskind. “We also hope to bring awareness to JEM and highlight the amazing non-profit that it is. Serving as a workplace and a major source of psycho-social support for roughly 85 community members that live with a disability,” she says. “Thanks to the sponsors and attendees, this event was also an opportunity for JEM to raise funds to support the incredible programming which takes place throughout the year geared to respond to the diverse needs of the workers.
Log on to http://www.jemworkshop.org/ for more about the organization.