Gabriella Axelrad, a luminous 13-year-old with a striking smile, had been on the final stretch of a family bike ride in Grand Teton National Park when a white van appeared out of nowhere and knocked the last breath out of her lithe dancer’s body.
There were no goodbyes. No time for one last “I love you.” For her mother, Liza Bercovici, there was only unimaginable grief, followed by a long empty life stretching out ahead of her.
That was 11 1/2 years ago, and Bercovici has come a long way since then.
Less than a year after her daughter’s death in July 1999, Bercovici gave up her family law practice in Studio City and established the Gabriella Axelrad Education Foundation. “I had to give myself a reason to go on living,” she said. “And believe me, there was a period there when I really didn’t want to.”
Determined to remain connected to the child she lost, Bercovici sought to establish a legacy for Gabriella. “I didn’t have my daughter any longer, but what I had was her memory; I remember how much Gabri loved to dance.”
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In August 2000, Bercovici opened the doors to Everybody Dance, an arts program offering free and low-cost dance classes in low-income neighborhoods for students ages 4 to 19. Serving mostly Latino, Asian American and African American communities, the program began with 35 students, 12 weekly classes and an annual budget of $55,000. Today it serves more than 2,000 students at three locations in the Rampart District and includes the Gabriella Charter School, a kindergarten-through-fifth grade school in Echo Park that opened in 2005 and integrates dance into the academic curriculum. The foundation has plans to expand into a middle school within the next year, and its entire annual budget has now reached $3.8 million.
Dance, Bercovici believes, has been lifesaving for many in the program. She said that 90 percent of the students come from families whose income level is below the poverty line. The dance classes have decreased extracurricular idleness, but even more than that, they have helped students develop their personalities.
“It’s really obvious dance has done wonderful things for them, given them poise and self-confidence, a strong sense of self-discipline, a need to set challenges for themselves and to meet those challenges,” Bercovici said.
“Once in a while, I wonder what would have happened if this dance program and this charter school had not come along. I would like to think that these kids would have made their way anyway, but I think having something that draws children in and engages them makes their lives better and gives them a pathway to future success.”
Bercovici has a husband, attorney David Axelrad, and two sons, ages 19 and 29, and she is well aware of the abundant opportunities for self-development in affluent communities. “That isn’t true in most the communities that we serve, where children go to schools that are generally mediocre, where they don’t feel challenged, and that translates into a lack of academic ambition and a general feeling of apathy.”
Bercovici’s work has impacted thousands of young lives, and it has also saved her own. “You never give up grieving for your child,” she said. But, she added, life becomes more bearable with time and a purpose.
She plans to open another charter school and realizes that, in a way, her life has become the embodiment of her daughter’s dreams: “It is kind of funny and amazing that even though she didn’t get to live out her love of dance or become the classroom teacher that she wanted to be, we’ve managed to have a dance program for children and create a school that I think she would have wanted to serve.”
For more info, visit Gabriella Axelrad Education Foundation/Everybody Dance!.