Dreaming up a plan to lend a hand
An annual concert has changed the lives of students at a Toronto school for children with developmental disabilities
Alana Grossman's office at Toronto's Beverley School is covered with colourful paintings and photos of children. But above the principal's desk is something with special significance: a framed poster from a concert that has changed the lives of the students at the small school for children with developmental disabilities, tucked on Baldwin Street just east of Kensington Market.
This year, that annual concert, known as the Dream Serenade, takes place November 11 at Toronto's Massey Hall and will feature Canadian music talent Hayden Desser, Sloan and Sam Roberts, among others.
It all started three years ago, when Toronto-based folk troubadour Hayden and his wife, Christie Greyerbiehl, saw an opportunity for parents of children at the school, including their own daughter, Grey, who has a chromosome deletion, to celebrate their kids – and in the process raise funds.
"You guys have helped us so much," Hayden recalls telling Grossman in the hallway of the school. "What do I have that I could give back in some way?"
Inspired by playing the Bridge School Benefit, a concert organized by Neil Young to help children with physical impairments, Hayden organized the school's first Dream Serenade in 2014.
The goal at first was to raise funds for equipment for the Beverley School. But in the past three years, Hayden and Grossman have shifted gears, providing financial support to parents to help give their kids memorable experiences.
Each year, Hayden begins organizing a group of performers eight months before the concert. In its first year, that group included Sarah Harmer, Jason Collett, Kevin Hearn of the Barenaked Ladies and Matt Berninger and Aaron Dessner of the National. In years since, an impressive array of musicians have continued to participate, including Feist and Gord Downie, leading to sold out shows (tickets range from $25 to $125). This year, on the Friday before the Dream Serenade, select musicians such as Joel Plaskett and the Barenaked Ladies will travel to the Beverley School to perform a concert for the school's children.
"You take communities that in your normal life you might not have interacted with, like the parents and people that work with children with disabilities and musicians, and they come together," Grossman said. "It's now created another community out there. For one night, everyone's in equal footing."
Hayden said that the complexity of juggling the financial pressures and responsibilities of raising a child with special needs can be overwhelming for parents. Thanks to the Dream Serenade, which since its launch has raised more than $125,000, packages are now available to help parents take their children out for evenings and day trips in and around Toronto. Families can visit the Ripley's Aquarium downtown or head to the Drake Devonshire Inn in Prince Edward County for a weekend getaway.
A recent focus has been providing funds for summer camps. Hayden noted that summers can be difficult as children such as his daughter require one-on-one attention and large camps aren't an option. Through the Dream Serenade, the Beverley School now offers summer-camp bursaries.
"For our parents, it's so difficult to raise a child with disabilities," Grossman said. "You're constantly fighting for their child and their rights in every system. But to have an evening when the emphasis is on celebrating your children with differences, that's so amazing. And that carries on."
Grossman said that many parents have enrolled their children at the Beverley School only after learning about the school through the Dream Serenade.
Beyond raising funds and awareness, the Dream Serenade has become a celebration of all the lives touched by the Beverley School.
In a small classroom, Eva Ang sits with her daughter Madeleine, nibbling on vegetables. She is surrounded by other smiling children who wave enthusiastically when a visitor like me enters their classroom. Ang, like many of the parents at Beverley School, has found a space for her daughter not on the sidelines, but where she is welcomed.
"We share this with our family and friends," she said. "This is a space that my daughter is happy in. Beverley is a place that means a lot to me and the Dream Serenade is just a recognition of all the amazing things that happen at Beverley.