A thirteen year-old Israeli boy (I’ll call him Max), tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide after being cyberbullied, relies on a breathing tube to live now, and is back in diapers. He will spend the rest of his life at a residential facility in Jerusalem called ALEH (Helping Children That Are Special).
As part of my trip to Israel, with the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, I visited ALEH Jerusalem this afternoon, a residential facility that cares for severely disabled children, regardless of religion or race. There are children with genetic diseases living at ALEH, 70 percent of the residents suffered problems at birth or were extremely premature, and there are too many tragedies like Max. One child was perfectly fine, until he fell off a change table; another drowned in a bathtub, and one child choked on a piece of meat. None of the children at ALEH can speak.
I was struck by the high ratio of caregivers to patients, their clean, trendy clothing, and the range of opportunities provided, including a sensory room where children are stimulated by music, light therapy, and touch. There is also a school, workshops, and fieldtrips to the mall, movies, and camp.
In a large, bright room, with photos of the children on the walls, I watched Sara, with pigtails and pink sneakers, blow a kiss to her caregiver. Sela, in striped socks, red track pants and pigtails, smiled and eyed us with interest. One boy repeatedly banged a tray attached to his wheelchair, some children had IV drips, and a few little girls had pink nail polish. As I sang and waved a tambourine, a boy with neatly cut hair grinned. One little girl with curly hair laughed as somebody shook bells in front of her.
“We dress the children here like we dress our own kids,” said Rachelly Teller, director of community relations. “The clothing belongs to each child and is either provided by the family, or donated. We don’t take second-hand clothing, and when things wear out, we throw them away.”
Jason Gardner, director of development, who is responsible for raising money in Canada and the United States, told us about a father, with two disabled sons in American group homes, who visited ALEH. After seeing the children, the father dropped into a chair in the boardroom, and said: “Their socks match. You have no idea how much I appreciate that.”
Not all of the children have parents who care as much as this father. For example, Tal, 32, was abandoned as an infant, and has lived in ALEH Jerusalem his entire life.
“Policy says Tal should be moved to the Negev location, where we care for adults,” said Jason. “But this is Tal’s home.”
Tal, with charcoal black hair and eyes, and an engaging smile, reached out for Jason and gave him a big hug. And when voices around us rose, Tal brought his finger to his lips, gesturing for people to be quiet. He handed us green wrist bands and looked at our tags to see our names. Though he couldn’t speak, he communicated with expressive eyes and gestures.
“There’s nothing like ALEH in the United States or Canada,” said Jason. “In North America, the idea is to keep disabled people at home, under family care.”
ALEH Jerusalem, one of four sites in Israel, started more than 30 years ago by a group of parents who wanted to give their severely disabled children the opportunities they needed to reach their potential. Every day, ALEH cares for over 700 children, with an average cost of $4,300 a month per child. The government covers 83 percent, and the rest comes from donations. Parents pay nothing, and Dov Hirth, director of development, said they only turn children away if their medical needs are too extensive.
Of course, money is always needed to enable ALEH to continue growing. Sadly, there will always be children with disabilities, and tragedies that leave children completely dependent, like Max. Only when we take issues like cyberbullying seriously, will we be able to prevent children from being victimized to the point where they feel there is no other option but to take their lives.
If you’re interested in volunteering, or making a donation, or just want to know more about ALEH, visit www.ALEH.org.