The annual ETTA Gala was held December 13th at the Beverly Hilton. Emmy-nominated Hollywood writer, David Weiss (screenwriter of Shrek 2, Rugrats, plus many other films and TV series) emceed the evening.
Mr. Weiss related an interesting story about his miraculous personal connection with ETTA. After asking Mr. Weiss to host, ETTA suggested that Avremel Mayer prepare him for the job. When he met Avremel, Mr. Weiss discovered he’d known Avremel all along. Mr. Weiss occasionally davens in a small shul where he’s always greeted with a smile by a Jewish man who serves coffee and muffins. That man turned out to be Avremel.
Community Advocate Award co-winner Portia Iversen (along with husband Jon Shestack) described her experiences in a video presentation. Dov, she said, was their first child. Somewhere between his first and second birthday, he received the diagnosis of autism. They felt alone. “There was no summer camp, no day program, no residential situation, but ETTA has taken on the challenge.”
Dov has benefitted greatly from ETTA’s Adult Day program. Portia explained that since Dov started the day program, he has been much more aware of his environment. She credited the day program for being more than a day program, with an extremely dedicated staff. She said they never give up on anyone and allow parents of autistic children to breathe a sigh of relief.
Marciarose Shestack, a world-renowned broadcast journalist, spoke about her family. Mrs. Shestack is Jon’s mother and proud grandmother of Dov. She said she was thrilled that Jon and Portia were being recognized by ETTA for their achievements. She explained that following Dov’s devastating diagnosis, Jon and Portia decided not to be complacent. In those days, Mrs. Shestack said, there was very little known about autism. There was nowhere for them to turn, so they took action. Jon and Portia (even though they had no real training, being a movie producer and a designer, respectively) organized autism walks all over the country, changed laws, lobbied Congress, and founded CAN (Cure Autism Now Foundation). In 2006, CAN and Autism Speaks merged to become the largest autism foundation in the world. All of their achievements were because of Dov – and then they found ETTA, which has truly been a beacon of light.
Jon Shestack said that he was nervous in the morning before the gala, fearing that he might embarrass his son, as parents often do. He asked Dov what he wanted him to say. Dov wrote on the letter board they carry everywhere, saying, “I’m not worried. You will speak from the heart.” Jon then told the packed audience, “Some days it’s hard to be Dov. I think he would be the first to tell you. It’s a struggle to communicate, to control your body, but he doesn’t give up, and he teaches us in the most surprising ways.” Jon related the story of Dov’s beautiful bar mitzvah. Portia told Jon that Dov would study like everybody else, and he did. When Jon saw how difficult it was for the boys, at first he thought it was sad to see them struggle, but then he realized how strong the boys’ prayers are, how they were the conduit to bring families together, and how Dov and others with autism are tzelem Elokim (in the image of G-d). Their spirits are perfect. Jon said Dov is cheerful, tenacious, and brave, and if he falls six times, he gets up seven. Jon then stated repeatedly, “What the World Needs Now Is A Little More ETTA.”
Next, co-chairmen on the board of directors Jay Kestenbaum and Jaime Sochacheski introduced Cathy and Jim Gott. They are the proud parents of two adults with autism. Cathy said that amazing things had happened just since she walked into the gala. Her friend Larry Stewart, a sportswriter for many years at The L.A. Times, was there with his wife and adult daughter Kelly. Kelly has a disability and was looking for a job. John Popoch, from Councilman Blumenthal’s office, stood up and offered her a job right there. Cathy said that there is no better organization serving adults with disabilities. She stated that in the next few years, there will be an unprecedented influx of children with autism transitioning to adulthood. It is estimated that 50,000 children will turn 18 in 2017. That number will triple in California over the next three years. We are simply not equipped, Cathy said, to offer productive, fulfilled lives to these deserving young adults. This is why it is incumbent on every member of the L.A. community to step up to the plate and support ETTA in any way they can.
Cathy introduced her husband Jim Gott, who knows a lot about stepping up to the plate and being part of a team. Jim related that in 1987, he was traded from the San Francisco Giants – first in the division – to the last place Pittsburg Pirates. No one expected this team to go very far, but a young Jimmy Leyland sat them down to talk about goals. There were 35 games remaining in the season, and they won 27. In fact, his teammates included Doug Drabek, who won the Cy Young award; Andy Van Slyke, an All-Star; and Barry Bonds, who became a reknowned homerun champion. Jim learned then about believing in a cause, and today he feels the same passion for the ETTA organization. He brought an autographed ball from his friend Sandy Koufax, and Cathy gave it as a gift in return for the highest pledged donation.
Dr. Michael Held, Executive Director of ETTA, said that while job creation is crucial, donations to ETTA’s general fund are equally important. He suggested that every community member in L.A. could reach out, as did board of directors member, Michael Baruch. Three years ago, Michael Baruch had an opportunity to chat with NY Giants co-owner Steve Tisch and received a generous six-figure sum. Baruch subsequently went back to Tisch, and the donation was duplicated.
The recipient of the Community Leadership Award was Lynn Menlo. On video, her family described some of her volunteer work, from feeding the homeless, to helping girls from broken homes in Israel, to baking challah with ETTA residents. Thanks to the Menlo family contributions (Lynn; her husband, Frank; her son, Dr. Sam Ross; son-in law, Avi Heyman; sons Simcha and Gabriel), they have made possible ETTA programs including Summer@ETTA, the fast growing adult day program, supporting living services, and cutting edge educational programs. Lynn Menlo also credited her in-laws, Mr. and Mrs. Sam Menlo, for their generosity and being a beacon to the community. Family and friends described Lynn Menlo as creative, spontaneous, fun to be around, and honest. Her honesty and genuineness came across to everyone when she spoke about her own experiences with a severe stuttering disability that required years of therapy. Lynn Menlo spoke with tremendous emotion, breaking up a few times, relating the pain she suffered because of those who cruelly poked fun at her stuttering. She explained, “I didn’t have ETTA then.”