Yes, you can.
That’s the message Kevin Gersh imparted to a group of students from Wyandanch High School a few months ago.
That’s the guiding philosophy of Gersh Academies, the chain of schools for autistic children he founded in 1999.
That’s what Gersh himself didn’t hear, growing up.
The high school students met Gersh, 50, at Jonathan’s Ristorante, in Huntington, to celebrate the Dress for Success initiative he created two years ago with Wyandanch principal Paul Sibblies. Gersh and other Huntington business leaders gave the male students the opportunity to select wardrobes free of charge from local retailers. The thinking was that dressing better might lead to improved behavior and performance in school — which, according to Sibblies, it has.
For some of the teens, it was the first time they had eaten out someplace besides a fast-food chain. Over plates of free-range chicken and spinach and ricotta ravioli, the now nattily attired young men listened attentively to the 6-foot-2, 220-pound guy with the gravelly voice.
“It felt like he actually believed in us,” said Elliott Burkes, 17.
Burkes and his schoolmates heard about how Gersh’s father, Edward, was a poor kid who became a boxer, later an administrator at a school in Harlem, and eventually a multimillionaire businessman. They heard about how Kevin struggled as a student, had a learning disability, was handed nothing by his father and through his own grit and determination ended up being successful as well.
And about how, if he could do it, they could do it.
“Why not me?” said Sibblies. “That’s what they’re learning from Kevin. He’s giving them a roadmap on how to be successful in life.”
A no-nonsense father
Gersh’s own road to success was a bumpy one for a number of reasons — primarily his relationship with his father.
“I’m very emotional about him,” admits Gersh, of Huntington. And those emotions are complicated in part by the elder Gersh’s complex, larger-than-life-character. He was born in 1920, the illegitimate son of a girl from the tenements and a prominent New York City attorney. He grew up between the streets of Manhattan and the upstate town of Monticello, where his mother found work at the summer resorts in the Catskills.
Edward Gersh was good with his fists and ended up being taken under the wing of a trainer at Gleason’s Gym, the mecca for boxers of that era.
“What I lacked in coordination, I made up for in determination,” Edward Gersh would write in his 2005 memoir, “A Strong Collected Spirit.”
Fighting as Edward Irwin using his middle name, which to his trainer “sounded better,” Gersh won the 1942 Golden Gloves competition. He was a heavyweight and went on to a successful amateur boxing career, during which he got to meet legendary fighters such as Sugar Ray Robinson and — while serving as a boxing instructor in the Army during World War II — fought in an exhibition match that also featured heavyweight champ Joe Louis.
The elder Gersh, however, opted for a college education over a professional career as a pugilist, graduating from New York University with a teaching degree. He was hired as a disciplinary dean at a junior high school in Harlem racked with gang violence. He reportedly felled a classroom troublemaker with one punch on his first day in the classroom, and forever earned the respect — and cooperation — of the student body. (He later adopted one of his Harlem pupils, who would live with the family for years.)
In summer, Edward Gersh worked at day camps on Long Island and saw opportunity in that business. He borrowed $13,000 from the wives of his mother’s mah-jongg group and plunked it down on a 20-acre farm in Huntington. In 1954, West Hills Day Camp was born. Within a decade or so, the elder Gersh had parlayed that into several camps and more real estate throughout Suffolk County.
In 1967, when Edward Gersh was 47, his first and only son was born. (Kevin Gersh has two half-sisters from his father’s previous marriage.) A warm, nurturing dad the former boxer was not.
“He put me to work cleaning toilet bowls at the camp when I was 11,” Gersh recalled.
Edward Gersh made it clear that his only son wasn’t getting a dime of dad’s burgeoning fortune unless he earned it. Gersh worked hard every summer but struggled in school because of what was later diagnosed as dyslexia. His father forbade his son from seeking the outlet that had saved his own life decades earlier.
“I really wanted to get in the ring,” Gersh said. “But my dad wouldn’t let me.”
While his father may have helped prevent a future case of traumatic brain injury, he left a bruised ego. Gersh never graduated college, despite attending a total of seven.
“My dad was very disappointed in me,” he recalled. “He said, ‘You don’t read enough books.’ He thought it was because I was lazy.”
Finding his calling
Gersh yearned to ignite his own entrepreneurial fire. But various efforts to launch new initiatives for the camp and his own ventures fizzled.
“My dad was like, ‘Told you so,’ ” Gersh recalled.
In the early 1990s, father and son had the idea of opening a school. Kevin Gersh visited a Montessori school in Plainview and was impressed. The Gershes purchased the school and relocated it at the West Hills camp facilities.
The student-centered Montessori method is known as a progressive approach to education. But there was little progress in the evolution of Kevin’s relationship with his father, who by then was living in Florida.
“We fought a lot,” Gersh recalled. “I thought I was so smart at 20-something years old. And he was telling me what to do from Florida. He finally said, ‘I can’t be a partner with you, you ungrateful SOB.’ ”
Gersh had to buy out his father’s share of the business and the two subsequently stopped speaking for several years. The younger Gersh threw his energies into West Hills Montessori, which he still owns, but he realized that there was a growing population of students that needed special help: Children on the autism spectrum.
“I didn’t want these kids to feel stupid like I did,” Gersh said.
He began to learn about autism education. As part of his research, Gersh attended a lecture by Stephen Shore, a professor of special education at Adelphi University in Garden City and a speaker, author and advocate for children with autism. Shore is also on the spectrum.
“Kevin was in tune with the needs of autistic children,” Shore said. “I was impressed.”
Gersh said there is a simple reason he is able to connect with them: “I struggle with my own neurobiological issues, and the kids know that.”
Nearly 20 years after it opened, Gersh Academies has schools for kindergarten through 12th grade in New York, Puerto Rico, Washington state and Indiana, serving about 350 autistic students.
“His schools focus on their strengths,” said Shore, who has been an adviser to Gersh. “One of his programs is called I Am, I Can. That kind of says it all.”
Another focus for Gersh is his own family. He and wife Lindy are parents to 11-month-old twin boys, Harrison and Ashton.
In 2007, Edward Gersh called his son and asked whether he could come help his father at West Hills Day Camp. Kevin Gersh asked that his father allow him to integrate a program for special-needs children into the camp. The elder Gersh agreed, and for the first time in 20 years, father and son worked together.
“It turned out to be a beautiful time in my life,” Gersh said.
They traveled together, socialized together and learned from each other for much of the last part of Edward Gersh’s life. He died in June 2014, at the age of 94.
Gersh said the father who came out fighting hard in everything he did in life rarely expressed his emotions, until near the end.
“One of the last things he said to me was, ‘I’m proud of you and the man you’ve become.’ ”
A chance to learn on horseback
When the Gersh Academy chain of schools for autistic children opened a West Hempstead location in 2012, founder Kevin Gersh eyed the nearby New York Equestrian Center.
“I thought, ‘I’d love to get our kids on horseback,’ ” recalled Gersh, of Huntington. “My whole life we had horses at West Hills Day Camp. I knew it would be good for our kids.”
When the equestrian center agreed, the school launched a once-a-week equine therapy program. “From Day One it worked,” Gersh said.
Now, Gersh Academy plans to solidify the collaboration. Construction of 18 classrooms on the grounds of the equestrian center will soon begin and, in September 2019, Gersh will open a school there for autistic children.
“The kids will be going to school at an equine center,” Gersh said. “It will be complete immersion. They’ll be feeding the horses, grooming the horses, riding the horses.”
And presumably, getting the benefits of equine therapy. While some question its effectiveness in helping autistic children, Stephen Shore, a professor of special education at Adelphi University in Garden City, believes in its value.
“There’s a lot of research on the benefits,” said Shore, who also has autism. “In addition to all of the communication and social interaction benefits that anybody would get in relating to a horse, the autistic person is receiving a sort of sensory integration therapy.” For example, “Many people on the spectrum have difficulty with balance. You have to learn balance on a horse.”
Gersh, who is dyslexic and struggled in school himself, believes that learning in this environment will be far superior to what he calls the “sterile” classroom.
“The child is taking pride in riding the horses and taking care of them,” Gersh said. “It teaches so many skills that a generic classroom doesn’t.”
— John Hanc