As a student at Gann Academy, I am given the opportunity to spend a week each year learning outside the classroom during Exploration Week.  The school sets up a variety of programs locally and throughout the US, allowing students the chance to “explore” in a variety of settings.  During my Freshman year, I participated in a glass works program where I learned how to blow glass and create glass beads, and during my Sophomore year, I volunteered at the local Pine Street Inn. These programs taught me patience and appreciation, skills I need for my work in school.  This year, instead of going on one of Gann’s pre-planned trips, I chose to create my own program and visit Israel.  Although I only had one week in Israel, I learned so much, this time acquiring skills to motivate and inspire me every day. 

I decided to go to Israel because I wanted to visit some of the “pioneer” programs the country offers for people with disabilities.  Families from all over the world move to Israel in order for their children with special needs to benefit from the country’s programs. I visited three of these programs and each had a unique quality that I want to incorporate in the program I am developing in Boston – to provide art therapy for people with special needs, to be inclusive and, in the process, to change the image of special needs.  Everyone I met was eager to share their knowledge and experience with me, encouraging me to integrate parts of their programs.   

The first program I visited, Beit Issie Shapiro, was one of the first facilities started in Israel for people with disabilities.  Beit Issie opened more than 30 years ago with the mission to fulfill the needs of people with special needs of all ages and backgrounds, change the views of people in the community towards those with disabilities, and conduct research in the effectiveness of programs for people with special needs.

Beit Issie’s drive to have children with special needs included in their communities stood out to me the most. They started an initiative to create parks in Israel that are accessible for both children with disabilities and children without so that they can play together and make connections starting at a very young age. Beit Issie expanded their idea of inclusion even more by creating a handicap character, Sivan, that will soon appear on Sesame Street and several of their facilities (i.e., pool and dental office) are open to the Ra’anana community.  Their program is devoted to giving people with disabilities all the services they need and, further, to include them in the community.

The second program I visited was ALEH, an amazing facility that serves even the most severely disabled.  ALEH provides for an average of 650 people with disabilities every day—providing them with living space, life training, and outstanding therapies. During my visit, I saw children of all ages and level of disabilities preparing for Pesach by cleaning dishes, vacuuming, and exercising their senses.

At ALEH, I learned the importance of creativity.  For the cognitively and physically disabled, it is important to find routes for them to express their creativity, emotions, and thoughts.  In ALEH’s art room, residents with a wide range of different abilities and disabilities can create their own pieces of art.  The projects created are specific to each resident and benefit each artist in a unique way.  For example, there is a stamping mechanism for a child with low level motor skills to use to create a pattern on a piece of clay, while there are handheld stamps and presses for other residents that are more appropriate for their abilities.  All the art created is sold in the ALEH boutique.

Many people associate facilities for special needs with sadness but, at the final stop of my trip, Shalva, I witnessed an environment that was bright and full of activity.  While at Shalva, I witnessed the most amazing performance by the Shalva band.  Playing their musical instruments or singing, the students were having a great time expressing themselves. The Shalva band performs for the community annually and is so talented that they even performed for Shimon Perez; truly inspiring.  I also saw some students rehearsing a play about Passover that they would be performing later that week.  It was so nice to see children with special needs of all abilities participating in a variety of arts, outgoing and expressing themselves through their performances.

In Hebrew, the word shalva (שלוה) means “peace of mind” and the letters that make up the Hebrew word, shin(ש), lamed (ל), vav (ו), heh (ה), stand for shichrur l’mishpacha v’layeled hamugbal, meaning:”liberating the child with special needs and their family.”  The program transports students with special needs from their daytime schools and brings them to a fun and happy afterschool environment where they learn, make friends, and express their creativity—staying true to its name.

These three programs are just a few of the many innovative programs in Israel that help people with disabilities, their families and friends, and the greater community.  I was very fortunate to make connections with these institutions through the Boston-Haifa connection that I previously found through Israel trips and local programs, like Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP).  CJP strongly supports connecting and supporting our fellow Israelis and Jews.  CJP makes it possible to foster strong relationships with programs of all types in Israel and continues to support inclusion both in Israel and in Boston.