Chai Lifeline Canada fundraiser helps children, families

When Nikki Benun’s son Gabriel was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia at six months old, it was “like a kick in the face, to put it bluntly,” Benun recalled.

With two other small children aged three and five, Benun and her husband would have had no idea where to turn had a friend not told them about Chai Lifeline Canada, a charitable organization that offers support to children and families affected by serious illness.

As the family’s lives were thrown into chaos, volunteers from Chai Lifeline did everything from buying and delivering groceries for the family every week (Chai Lifeline paid for the groceries), to showing up with pastries, and inviting the parents out for coffee to give them a mental break.

Equally critical was the support the volunteers gave Gabriel and his siblings. On occasion, a volunteer would spend the night in hospital with Gabriel to give the family a chance to connect. More often, volunteers would ensure Gabriel’s siblings received plenty of attention.

Niki Benun and her son Gabriel, 6, swing from their backyard treehouse The family has benefited from Chai Lifeline Canada’s services.

“A lot of times when a family has one sick child, you’re so focused as a parent on getting that kid well, you’re exhausted and you maybe don’t have as much time as you want or need for your other kids,” Benun said. “(The volunteers) were really good at providing our other two kids with the opportunity just to be kids.”

Gabriel is now in remission, but the Benuns remain part of the Chai Lifeline family, with the kids attending camps and joining in other activities with the friends they made throughout their journey.

“These aren’t just people who pop up and then disappear when the crisis is over,” Benun said. “They form relationships with the family. They’re there for the long haul.”

Chai Lifeline Canada executive director Mordy Rothman, based out of the charity’s North York office, noted the organization has 22 year-round programs to support families affected by serious illness. That support is extended not just to families with a seriously ill child, but also children who have a parent dealing with serious illness.

“At the beginning of a diagnosis, we’re in contact every day, even a couple of times a day and we stay with those families as things progress,” he said.

Programs include camps,  mentoring from Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and  tutoring services.

“A sick child could wind up missing a lot of school and being isolated from friends and family,” Rothman said. “Their childhood is essentially being ripped away from them, and from their siblings as well.”

The organization offers counselling and support groups for parents as well.

Beyond day-to-day assistance, Chai Lifeline likes to treat the kids it helps well, whether that’s through trips to camp, Disney World or Israel, or by giving the kids “wow” gifts such as iPads, computers or gaming systems.

“Our flagship program is our camps,” Rothman said. “We have two camps we visit in upstate New York where we give our guests a real Jewish camp experience.”

Chai Lifeline Canada office manager Sylvia Schwartz keeps the toy room in order and ready to receive young clients requests.

A visit could see campers enjoying everything from hot air balloon rides to helicopter rides, and a hospital on site provides care as required.

Rothman noted that while the camp experiences are geared toward Jewish children and youth, Chai Lifeline does not only serve Jewish families.

“We’re in the business of helping people,” he said. “We have a strong community that’s here for any family that’s had a diagnosis of a serious illness.”

The organization relies largely on philanthropy, with a number of fundraisers taking place every year. The upcoming Chai on Tap event, a beer tasting and pairing event at posh Graydon Hall Manor, will see guests take part in beer-making workshops, international food, a top DJ and more. The event, which will take place on Monday, July 23 from 7 to 11 p.m., is expected to bring in about $60,000 for Chai Lifeline Canada.

For more information on the event or to buy tickets, visit

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