Alysa Naomi Rotstein was born in Hamilton on Jan. 30, 1981, the first-born for Simone, an elementary schoolteacher, and Ed, a psychiatrist. At eight months, Simone and Ed noticed that Alysa would topple over when trying to sit, and favoured her left arm; doctors later diagnosed cerebral palsy, though “a mild right-sided weakness is what we called it,” says Ed. Brother Joshua was born two years later, and Simone remembers teaching them to climb the stairs at the same time. Brother Ben came along in 1985.
Alysa was a curly-haired and imaginative child, spending hours in the yard inventing adventures with neighbourhood kids. Summers were spent at a left-leaning Jewish camp, where Alysa pushed herself to “pull her own weight” with camp duties, says Simone, and where she formed a passion for “changing the world.” At 14, Alysa, who loved writing, won a city-wide contest for her poem about a homeless man, displaying early on an empathy that would shape her work and friendships.
After high school, Alysa spent a year in Israel, working on a kibbutz and volunteering. On her return, she began a bachelor’s in social work at McGill. Inspired by the Shabbat dinners she’d enjoyed at the home of a Montreal family, Alysa began hosting her own Shabbat potlucks. “Alysa loved to sit around a table and share food,” says friend Jenny Cohen. Everyone and all faiths were welcome, and Alysa would preside over the sharing of “highlights and lowlights” of the past week. With her warmth and signature laugh (like “staccato hiccups,” says Jenny), Alysa brought people together and made friends effortlessly.
From Montreal, Alysa headed to Toronto and completed a master’s in social work at York University, writing her thesis on disability studies. She again began hosting potlucks and quickly expanded her social circle. After a few months of searching, she found work as a counsellor and program developer for Aboriginal women and children at Native Child and Family Services of Toronto. The job was tough but Alysa was a tireless advocate, says co-worker Emily Gallienne. She was given a Cree name by an elder: She Who Carries the Holy Water Crossing the Running River.
“Alysa was never afraid of putting herself in new situations,” says Ed. She canoed, snowshoed, learned karate. She also loved to travel, and spent time after her undergrad in Ecuador, and more recently in Italy, where she stayed with a friend’s relative, who spoiled and pampered her—she liked to joke she’d had the “Italian grandmother experience.” In 2008, Alysa bought a condo near Kensington Market, where she loved to walk with friends, sipping coffee and talking over challenges at work or matters of the heart. Last summer, she learned to ride a bike in the city, overcoming her nervousness about her own physical challenges—and Toronto drivers. Two years ago, Alysa joined a percussion group called Samba Elégua, in which she played a bell called the agogo.
For her 30th birthday this January, Alysa sent out a party invitation with an image of Wonder Woman attached, asking friends to join her in a night of sharing food, music, and poetry. It took some coaxing, but that evening Alysa drew people out of themselves, as she always did. She was so happy she was “shining,” says friend Cara Goldberg. She later wrote on her Facebook page that she’d had “the time of my life.”
In February, Alysa flew to Costa Rica with friends. (Upon her return, Alysa was going to be focusing on trauma counselling at work, a change she was “really excited about,” says Emily.) Though Alysa was “a bit nervous about it,” says trip-mate Lauren Krugel, on the morning of Feb. 22 they’d planned a challenging hike to a volcano crater. Park rangers, though, told them high winds would make the hike too risky, and suggested an alternative seven-kilometre trek to a pair of waterfalls. The girls stopped for lunch at the first of the waterfalls, fed by a pool of water that narrowed to a small, rocky stream before cascading down about 35 m. Wanting to join Lauren, who’d simply “stepped over” the stream, Alysa tried to do the same. Before the girls knew what had happened, Alysa was in the water, the force of it carrying her downstream and over the edge. Lauren ran back down the trail to get help, while the other girls tried desperately to find a safe route down to Alysa, who wasn’t responding to their cries. It was hours before rescuers could reach Alysa; she didn’t survive the fall.