“I’ll keep going even if I have to use a Zimmer frame.” So says Ian Fagelson, a partner in Reed Smith Richards Butler, of mountain-climbing and trekking exploits which, by his own admission, do not come easily. “I take no exercise at all but once a year I have to summon the energy to get through some fairly hard challenges,” says the 55-year-old corporate law specialist. “I end up completing them on nervous energy alone.”
Fagelson’s commitment to hard physical graft arises through a charity that he set up to help children with learning disabilities. His son, Jonathan, was born with a profound language disorder and was diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. As with many parents in a similar situation, Fagelson searched for a way of helping Jonathan as best he could. Curiously, inspiration came as an indirect result of a high-profile libel case.
“A documentary had been made about Flora Keays, the child of Sara Keays and Cecil Parkinson, but an injunction was granted prohibiting disclosure of its content,” Fagelson says. Parkinson was, as I recall from my days with Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners, no stranger to the libel writ. On this occasion, though, the libel laws were side-stepped, as Fagelson exlains: “A Labour MP used Parliamentary Privilege to get the story in the public domain. He read out a series of facts, including that Flora was receiving treatment for Asperger’s Syndrome and learning difficulties. I remember reading in the papers the following day that she was being treated in Jerusalem. Jonathan was six at the time but it gave me the idea of taking him over there for treatment too.”
Soon enough Fagelson was on a three month sabbatical in Jerusalem, and when he got back he was convinced that hope for Jonathan was possible. However, he was also aware that other parents in the same boat might not be able to afford to spend time in Jerusalem. “It struck me that British families could benefit from help closer to home,” he says, “so I set up the HOPE institute in London. It started in 1996 with one teacher and six children in my dining room and is now an established centre, with a staff of 12, in Cricklewood.”
Fagelson says that all teaching conducted under the aegis of the HOPE centre is on a one-to-one basis. “That means, in turn, that we’re constantly having to think of fund-raising activities. Up to 2000 we concentrated on hosting dinners and putting on shows but then we decided to start concentrating on activities that could be done over a long weekend.” The first of these was a climb of Mount Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in Morocco. “It was a wonderful experience,” recalls Fagelson, who was accompanied by a team of 52 for the climb.
Other highlights include climbing Mount Mulhacen, Spain’s highest mountain in the Sierra Nevada (“the hardest yet”, according to Fagelson) and trekking in Iceland in “atrocious weather”. Has this confessedly non-athletic lawyer ever asked himself what on earth he is doing as he suffers yet another icy blast at altitude? “Every year I ask myself that question,” is Fagelson’s unequivocal reply. “But the high when the challenge is over makes it all worthwhile.”
It seems to me that it is more than merely the high engendered by completing a tough physical challenge that keeps Fagelson going. Isn’t it the case that having now started HOPE and made it so successful that he is wedded to it? “You’re right,” he replies. “The challenges are the means to the end. The real aim is to keep HOPE going. It benefits over 200 children and I want to make sure that it continues to do so.”
Fagelson is that rare breed – the selfless lawyer. Happily his son Jonathan has prospered through HOPE’s care and teaching. Expect to hear of his father taking on fresh challenges over the next 20 years – with a Zimmer frame, if he has to.
For more information on HOPE see www.hope-centre.org.uk. HOPE’s next challenge is a trek in the Grand Canyon, 28/10/07 – 01/11/07, for the which the charity is still looking for volunteers