Temple, Hebrew Free Loan help disabled actor take off

Sometimes it takes a village to help a young person achieve independence. Ask Robert Ross. He and his family couldn't do it alone. It's too expensive.

Ross, 22, is a quadriplegic. He became disabled four years ago after diving into an underwater sandbar near Santa Cruz.

Ross is ready to move out of his parents' Oakland home to live on his own. But finances stand in his way.

Ross can move his shoulders, wrists and biceps — enough mobility to drive. But to live on his own, he'll need an attendant, medical supplies and a specially equipped van in order to get around on his own. None of this comes cheaply. The van alone costs more than $50,000.

That's where the village comes in — in this case, members of Temple Sinai, neighbors, students, a music group and Hebrew Free Loan Association.

Students at San Francisco's Stuart Hall, where Ross attended elementary school and his mother, Mary Triest, teaches music, are donating to his independence fund.

Ross' neighborhood had a garage sale.

Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd High School, from which Ross graduated in 1992 and where he was an active thespian, gave him the proceeds from a drama production.

The San Francisco Bay Area Chamber Choir, in which his mother sings, held a benefit concert.

But Ross' financial needs are enormous.

Last fall, his rabbi, Steven Chester of Oakland's Temple Sinai, went to the Hebrew Free Loan Association to discuss Ross' situation with executive director Irwin Wiener.

"I felt this was something we should be involved in," says Wiener, although at that time HFLA's resources were limited.

Wiener and Chester approached their organizations to see what could be done.

Chester sent a letter to synagogue members asking for help. Ross became a bar mitzvah and was confirmed at Sinai, where his father, Chuck, works as a handyman, and his mother is a longtime board member. The congregation responded generously, donating $30,000.

Wiener approached HFLA board member Harry Blumenthal, who made a substantial donation to HFLA, enabling the organization to provide a loan to Ross and his family. The loan will be paid back over a five-year period.

"It has been a very rewarding experience not only to help this young man but to work with a synagogue," said Wiener.

Although finances will always be a problem and many hurdles remain, Ross is forging ahead, pursing his passion, the theater. This semester Ross enrolled as a full-time theater arts student at Cal State Hayward. During the past three years, Ross has been active in local theater — directing, composing music and attending workshops.

Ross' talent was cultivated by drama director Dennis Kohles, who cast the young actor in several leading roles in the high school's productions. A number of professional actors, including Emmy Award-winner Michael Goorjian — who is a regular on "Party of Five" — started their training with Kohles.

"Dennis met with us and said there was no point in Robert applying to a four-year college drama program. He was too advanced," says Ross' mother. "He said Robert should go to New York and start auditioning."

But one day after he gave the best performance of his life — in Bishop O'Dowd's production of "Equus" — the accident shattered those plans.

Bad luck? Not as bad as it could have been, according to Ross.

When a companion rescued him from the water, Ross "only had 10 seconds of air left," he remembers. "I'm alive, and that's truly a miracle. Everything else is gravy."

Ross may make it to New York yet, but first he has to get out of his parents' home.

A van, linchpin of independence, is still on his wish list. First Ross needs a new wheelchair that reclines so he can redistribute his weight. This must be done every 20 minutes or pressure sores develop that sometimes confine him to bed for weeks. As soon as MediCal approves this request, Ross can get the new chair.

Once the size of the chair is known, the van can be ordered.

Then come driving lessons, a new license and a few months' wait while the van is outfitted. But Ross has no complaints.

"If you have a pair of sixes, you play them. You don't fold," he says. "If I didn't have the temple, school, friends and family, I wouldn't have the quality of life I'm afforded."