Photos by: Steven Cohen
As part of the preparation for her Bat Mitzvah, 12-year-old Ilana Kleinfeld had to create a community service project. She could have collected winter coats, or held a can food drive, instead she chose to swim a mile — that's 72 laps folks — and donate the proceeds to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.
"My dad put the idea into my head to swim the mile," says Ilana. "I did it as a tribute to my Uncle Jay."
Her dad's brother, Jay, shattered his C5, and fractured his C6 as a teenager in the summer of 1976. "It was the only day of the entire summer I wasn't there with him," says Ilana's dad, as the tears well up in his eyes.
They were lifeguards together at a country club. Jay dove off the lifeguard stand, like he had hundreds of times before, but this time the stand gave, and Jay fell headfirst straight to the bottom of the pool. Ilana's dad takes a deep breath as he shares what happened next. "He probably would have drowned because he was paralyzed instantly, but a man noticed him in the water."
Jay underwent surgery. "They told him he was never going to walk again," says Ilana's dad. "That they were going to teach him to live in a wheelchair."
Jay had other ideas. After just 10 months of rehab he miraculously walked out of the hospital on his own. He returned to school and went on to become a pharmacist. He's the one who taught Ilana to swim and to dive.
When the family was trying to come up with the Bat Mitzvah community service project, they wanted to honor Jay's success. "When Christopher Reeve had his accident," says Ilana's mom, "it was like a reliving of Jay's. That's why we wanted to get involved with Team Reeve."
Ilana sent letters about her event to friends and family, posted a notice in her Temple's bulletins and at her community center. Ilana's mom handed out fliers at the high school where she worked.
"Her first thought was wouldn't it be nice if we raised $1,800," says her very proud mom. "Then when we raised 1,800, I thought, ah, I'm going to set a goal now for 3,600. And they (Ilana and her dad) were like, ‘Forget about it. No way.'"
"And then when we hit 5,400. I said 7,200," she continued. "We'll never make it, but it can be a goal."
Ilana and her Uncle Jay
The day of the swim 50 friends and family members showed up to cheer Ilana and surprise and honor her uncle. (The family managed to keep the event a secret from him for over a month.) Ilana's mom made sure there were water bottles for her daughter at both ends of the pool, her sister held the cards with her lap count, and Ilana's dad was there in his swim suit — just in case his daughter needed him.
This is Ilana's third year on the swim team; she's headed to the Junior Olympics for the 100-breast stroke, which takes about 90 seconds. She's never swam a mile before this.
"When my coach said it's probably going to take a half an hour," says Ilana. "I'm like, no it's not, it's going to take a lot more."
It took Ilana just 30 minutes to swim one mile — without stopping by the way.
She raised over $7,500 for the Reeve Foundation.