Alex seems a lot like any other young professional. He works out, takes care of himself and is an avid baseball, basketball, hockey and poker fan. He’s honest, kind, extremely easygoing, and he loves his family. But under the surface lies a difficult, yet inspirational story.
Alex was born in Moldova in 1987, his older sister Tatiana was five and his mother had already divorced Tatiana’s father and remarried Alex’s. When Alex was only a few years old, they all moved to Israel together. Unfortunately, her second marriage, like her first, lasted only a few years and she once again remarried. With her third husband she had Sara, Alex’s younger sister and once again the family moved – this time to Toronto. At only five, Alex found himself living in circumstances that no child should ever know exist. The family shared a tiny, run-down apartment near Fairview Mall and his mother and stepfather could rarely afford to buy groceries. However, it wasn’t for lack of employment, as Alex recalls. “It was because they spent every penny they had on alcohol.”
“When Tatiana was only about ten years old, they used to send her alone on the TTC with cash shoved in her pockets, across the city, just to buy them cheap booze on the Russian black market.” Alex, was too young to join her on those illegal outings, but instead was asked to go to Fairview Mall and steal toilet paper from the public washrooms or food from the food bank bins at the local grocery store. Along with the lack of money and frustration fueled by alcohol, came the physical abuse. “My stepfather would hit and slap me constantly and chase me out of the apartment. He would hit Tatiana with a hockey stick and then beat her for running away.” Sara, only an infant at this time, was neglected and malnourished. By the time Alex was seven years old, he had figured out that if he wore three or four pairs of pants at a time, “getting spanked wouldn’t hurt as much.”
This was around the time that everything changed for Alex and his sisters. Tatiana, now twelve years old had received an especially bad beating and ran away to a friend’s house where she broke down and confided to her friend’s parents that she was scared for her life. A phone call was made that very night to Jewish Family and Child Service. Less than a day later, a social worker from JF&CS accompanied by a Russian translator and a police officer brought Alex, Tatiana and Sara to an emergency foster home, ready and waiting for their arrival. That was 1994. Alex remembers the experience with a mix of relief and awe. “It was this big, beautiful home in Thornhill with loving parents, three kids and a nanny too! I had never had three meals a day, unlimited supply of toilet paper and a safe, abuse free environment before.” Unfortunately, one of JF&CS’ constant challenges is finding a foster home that can accommodate sibling groups. Alex was able to stay in that home, but his sisters were placed elsewhere. As with most of our children in foster care, it was a significant challenge for Alex, but he adjusted well and quite quickly.
Alex lived in four different foster homes over the course of the next ten years. JF&CS worked regularly with Alex’s mom on her alcoholism and abuse (though she made little progress) and Alex even spent time with his biological father, also in Toronto. At one point, it looked like his father’s home might be a permanent solution. Alex was enjoying his regular visits and his father appeared responsible and willing. That was around the time that JF&CS sent Alex to Northland B’nai Brith - a Jewish overnight camp. Alex had the first of many memorable summers there; however, this first summer, he returned from camp only to find his father had vanished. Alex was ten; he has never heard from, or seen his father since. In all respects, Alex could have gone down a very dark path, but instead he truly thrived. JF&CS paired him with a volunteer ‘big brother’, who impacted his life immensely. Furthermore, the Agency (through its Levelling the Playing Field Fund) covered the cost of his joining hockey and baseball leagues and lessons, and even gave him a Bar Mitzvah.
Alex says, “having the opportunity to take part in organized sports and going to camp allowed me to channel any negative energy I had into having fun, making friends and taking my mind off my personal problems. The unconditional support I received over the years from JF&CS, my big brother, my foster parents, social workers and friends has really helped shape me as a person.” In Alex’s early teens, he and his sisters were reunited in a home belonging to the Isenberg family. Along with their own son, Nathan, Jeff and Liz Isenberg welcomed the sibling trio with open arms and Alex lived there until he was eighteen. His younger sister still calls the Isenberg's her mom and dad.
The values that Alex inherited in foster care, led him to make excellent choices. “I knew I could do well in university because of the support I had at home. JF&CS helped me get a bursary to study at York, helped me with my living expenses, and was there for counselling whenever I needed someone to listen.” About a year before receiving his undergraduate degree, Alex and Tatiana (now on her own and happily married) decided to make one last attempt to reconcile with their mother. They took her out for a Mother’s Day dinner which quickly went awry when she launched into a diatribe about how the family would still be together had Tatiana not ruined their lives by calling JF&CS for help. That dinner was last year and it was also the last straw due to their mother’s unwillingness to accept responsibility and come to terms with her mistakes. Alex says; however, that he has no regrets and that his sister’s “calling for help”, is what saved his life.
Alex decided that he wanted to give back to JF&CS in the most meaningful way possible – by sharing his story. In September 2010, Alex was asked to be the Keynote Speaker at the Agency’s Annual General Meeting. With the Isenberg family his sister Sara, and his brother-in-law Paul there to support him, Alex bravely explained to more than 150 guests that he was proof of the absolute necessity of a Jewish children’s aid society and how urgently needed good Jewish foster parents truly are.
Alex has recently passed the Bar Exam; he is a now a lawyer. He loves how his life has turned out thus far, summing it up by saying, “I know that most people wouldn’t agree that being removed from my biological parents was lucky, but they really have no idea about luck. Some people win the lottery and some get to travel the world, but I got out. I got saved. I’m one of the luckiest people I know.”
*Names, photos and certain identifying features have been changed in order to protect the anonymity of our clients.