Chair no barrier to good life

“C’mon guys!” shouts fitness instructor Valeria Alvia, punching the air to the Latin music on the stereo.

“This is a seven-minute song!”

Following her lead is Jay Allison, one of 30 regulars in the seated Zumba and weights class that shakes up the Variety Village gym on Tuesday mornings.

Without a break, the class goes from air punches to a hand-drumming move. The music speeds up, and Allison looks across the gym at the able-bodied reporter struggling to follow along.

“I warned you!” she says, laughing.

From left, Jay Allison, fitness instructor Valeria Alvia and Mary Caruso are all smiles after an hour of intense Zumba exercises at Variety Village on May 15. Twice a year Variety Village hosts some 200 people, seated and standing, in a giant ‘Zumba-thon’ that raises funds for the community centre. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson
From left, Jay Allison, fitness instructor Valeria Alvia and Mary Caruso are all smiles after an hour of intense Zumba exercises at Variety Village on May 15. Twice a year Variety Village hosts some 200 people, seated and standing, in a giant ‘Zumba-thon’ that raises funds for the community centre.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Allison, who turns 57 this fall, has lived her whole life in the Beach.

She ran Jay’s Place, a ladies’ clothing store, for 16 years before working for other Queen Street retailers and then becoming a wardrobe consultant for film and TV.

Her first time on set was for a two-minute TV ad featuring a grandpa and a little boy eating hot dogs.

Starting at the crack of dawn, Allison was the one who brought the boy his bucket.

“Honey, just so you can spit out the hot dog,” she told him.

“But I love hot dogs!” he said.

Twelve hours later, Allison says, that bucket was filling up.

That job led her to bigger productions, like piecing together 1960s outfits for films such as Hairspray and Valley of the Dolls.

The clothing business is a good fit for someone with Allison’s style – for years she drove a red and black Toyota MR2 sports car that matches the colours of her house.

But after a botched knee operation, Allison was forced to quit.

Born with a mild form of cerebral palsy, Allison has long had trouble walking. Still, by keeping fit and after more than 50 surgeries, it seemed that right up until last summer she would be able to manage.

“We really had hoped that I was going to get back on my feet,” she said. “Now I’m trying to make the best of things.”

At Toronto’s Lyndhurst rehab centre, Allison is working with physiotherapists and job counsellors so she can start work again, hopefully back in fashion.

To make life easier at home, she has swapped her rugs for wood floors, widened the back patio door and installed a ramp up to the front door.

Thanks in part to the Beaches Lions Club, she was able to buy a lightweight wheelchair that, with no small effort, she can haul in and out of her car by sliding in the passenger door.

“It’s a whole different world being in a chair, it really is.”

Allison is quick to say how lucky she is for being able to drive, for having supportive friends and neighbours and for being born with a  a sense of humour.

But making a whole home wheelchair accessible is a big job, and a pricey one.

Going into her kitchen, the most striking thing is the vintage public phone on the wall—a spiffy piece that would look great on a 1950s film set.

But, laughing, Allison opens the oven door to reveal an even more original feature – one that shows just how much work the kitchen needs.

All her dishes are tucked inside, since it’s one of the few storage spaces low enough for her to reach.

“My cans are in my linen closet, my bottled water is in my bedroom closet,” she says. “Nothing’s in its real place.”

A grant of several thousand dollars from the March of Dimes Foundation will go a long way to changing that, covering the cost to knock out part of her kitchen wall and install a low-level ‘island’ counter with storage below.

“If I had a first-born, they would have it,” Allison says.

But it will cost at least half that price again to install a cooktop, new flooring, a wall oven and low counters to replace her old ones.

When they heard about all the work that needs doing, friends of Allison organized a fundraising dinner to help with the renovations.

“I’m humbled and overwhelmed that someone wants to do this,” she says.

Asked what tips she might give  someone else facing a similar situation, Allison answers straight away.

“The thing that got me through – and I wouldn’t be as good as I am today – is Variety Village,” she said, adding that all the staff are great, and Alvia’s seated fitness class has grown from four or five to 30 people.

“I’ve met some great friends who I wouldn’t have met if I wasn’t in a chair,” she said, smiling. “We’re all going out to watch the Leafs game tonight – all the chicks in chairs.”

Featuring music from the Beach’s own Martin Gladstone and Frank Caruso, as well as a light dinner, drinks and a silent auction, Allison’s kitchen fundraiser will start at 7 p.m. on June 20. For more information, call Yvonne Snider at  416-264-3663


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1 comments

I wish I were closer to be part of this great fund raiser for my cousin Jeanette, and I think it’s wonderful that her Beaches community is taking the incentive to help her.

I hope it will be a great success,

Wilma, Fredericton, New Brunswick

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