Most of us would agree that there is nothing worse than losing a child. The question is what you do with that loss. Liza Bercovici, a Los Angeles citizen -- and she personifies that word -- was honored at the White House this week for how she handled the maddening tragedy that took her daughter's life.
Gabriella Axelrad was just beginning her teenage years when she was killed by a reckless driver while biking with her vacationing family in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She was a beautiful blonde gem of a girl. I still remember the day she and my daughter set up a lemonade stand in Malibu. They would run in every time they made a sale, "Tom Hanks just bought one!" "Tori Spelling came by!"
Gabriella was a good student and she loved to dance. She was adored by her two brothers, one younger and one older, and her father, David, an attorney. But it was with her mother that she had one of those truly special relationships. In the months after her death, Liza was a faucet of tears, constantly -- and unnecessarily -- apologizing for the uncontrollable emotion.
She also said she couldn't imagine returning to her job as a legal mediator: "How can I look at people torn up about a marriage ending when I have just gone through this?" she asked. Many of us urged her to find a way to do something that used her rage and pain, and honored Gabriella.
And did she ever. Knowing how much her daughter had hoped to pursue dancing, Liza quit her job and said she was going to start an after-school program in a poor neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles. We all encouraged her, but I don't think any of us realized the determination and strength underneath what can only be described as the world's sweetest and most generous personality.
Fifteen years ago, Everybody Dance! opened its doors and those studios have been packed since day one. More than 2,000 children have paid little or nothing to take advantage of some 200 classes a week, now offered in six inner-city sites. As she was planning one of her annual benefits, I suggested to Liza that she invite newly-arrived-in-Los Angeles choreographer (and husband of Natalie Portman) Benjamin Millepied. I had to explain who he was -- one of Liza's most endearing traits is her complete lack of Hollywood savvy. She followed through, however, and the next thing I knew, Millepied had agreed to attend the benefit and has since said, "Everybody Dance! is the best program I have seen in this country."
Was this enough for Liza Bercovici? Would she rest on her laurels?
Far from it. In 2005, she opened a charter school with dance as its main component. Suffice to say that the Gabriella Charter School has won numerous awards for its amazing accomplishments in such a short period. The students read, write, and multiply... and then they tap and twirl to their heart's content. And they graduate!
Others have turned this most incomprehensible of tragedies into organizations or movements. Some cannot escape the depression. I know a couple who broke up shortly after their son suddenly died right before graduating from college: not uncommon, as such partners look at each other and see only heartbreak. Liza understood how all that could happen, but struggled to hold her family together and keep Gabriella alive in some way. This week, she stood beside Michelle Obama and was finally honored herself, receiving the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. Well done.