A shocking tragedy recently took place, when a life with so much hope and vigor was suddenly snuffed out without warning.
Shawn Leibovitch, a 15-year-old with Cerebral Palsy, trained for two months for a 2 km race which commemorated the fallen graduates of the school from Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, during the War of Independence. Shawn received a medal for finishing among the top three winners, and took his place atop the victors podium.
The next day he was found dead in his bed, killed from what seems to be a sudden heart attack. While it is unclear whether or not the race had anything to do with the heart attack, Shawn’s victory and the joy felt by his family, friends and schoolmates upon his achievement was quickly changed into communal mourning at his passing.
Shawn’s family believes that there is no connection between the race and their son’s death, and look to the lessons that they can learn from Shawn’s achievement as his parting legacy to the community.
In an interview with Ynet, Shawn’s sister Anat explained that “Shawn’s death left a message for all of us. A life lesson that we can all learn from. Accept the other, and try to understand him. That is the message that he took with him to the podium only a few days ago, and that is the message from which we can all learn.”
Shawn was born with Cerebral Palsy and as an infant was given to a foster family from Moshav Kochav Michael located in southern Israel. Currently, all foster children in Israel’s south as well as the Jerusalem area are cared for by foster families coordinated by the The Summit Institute.
Summit rescues and cares for over 1,200 of Israel’s most disadvantaged young people through the family-based foster program for infants and youth at risk and in-community rehabilitation of young adults coping with mental illnesses.
“The Summit Institute rescues and cares for some 800 Israeli children at-risk removed from their homes by the social welfare services due to severe abuse and neglect,” explained Orit Amiel, Director of Foster Care at Summit, to Breaking Israel News. “By recruiting and training families to serve as loving homes and through programs aimed at addressing their therapeutic and scholastic needs, we help these at-risk children move from the cycle of trauma which defined their past into a healthier more secure future as young adults.”
In spite of his disability, Shawn was able to function in a regular school fitting in seamlessly with the rest of the class and keeping pace with the other students academically. He made many friends and was someone whom everyone seemed to love.
Shawn refused to give in to his condition, and with the help of his teachers and friends, overcame many obstacles including gaining mastery over his basic motor skills.
For over two months. Shawn prepared for the race. He was mentored and trained by his mentor Menachem Katav, who ran beside him for the 2000 meter run. “Shawn was incredibly excited. Almost manically excited, and he was steadfast. We ran hand in hand the whole way and he refused to let it get to him. For the entire length of the race other students and friends from the schools cheered him on. Against all odds, he successfully finished the race,” said Katav.
During the medal ceremony, Shawn took the podium. He received a standing ovation from the entire student body as well as the staff. “He took the stand and thanked everyone who helped him in the race, and over the years, as if he knew something no one else knew, as if he would be leaving us,” Katav recalled.
“In retrospect, when I think about everything that occurred that day, it appears quite symbolic,” Katav continued. “As the person who accompanied him the entire way, I can say that it certainly was an accolade for him.”
The next day Shawn woke up like any other day. He was supposed to attend a ceremony for his adoptive father, who had passed away a few years before. Shawn felt tired and decided not to go as he felt he couldn’t get out of bed. When his family returned from the ceremony, they found him in his bed unconscious. He was confirmed dead on location.
“He was at the height of his physical capacity thus far in his life,” Katav said. “We were all shocked. He had achieved so much, and each time managed to surprise us all once again. He was so pumped following the race. He was certainly on an emotional high. People have not come to grips yet with what happened. Everyone is still in shock.”
A fellow student who knew Shawn for over 12 years summed up Shawn’s legacy: “He was a fighter. Not in the military sense of the word, but in the life sense of the word. He was in the army of life, in the army that stands before every hardship and pushes through.”
“Shawn was a strong fighter who overcame every obstacle. Shawn was a mirror to us, not one that we measure how skinny we are, but one that shows us what life is truly about. Shawn is reflected in all of us. Shawn was a very special person, and eventhough he was taken from us, he shines on in all of our hearts. And he always will.”