When Nina Paul first visited ALEH Negev Nahalat-Eran several years ago, she wept.

“Having experienced so many of the residential rehabilitative facilities in the States, I saw immediately the difference at ALEH Negev,” she said. “Not only was it a beautiful environment on the outside, it was doubly beautiful on the inside thanks to the staff, the program and the incredible love and care given.”

With sprawling green lawns and water features surrounded by spectacular views of Israel’s Negev Desert, this 25-acre village looks more like a retreat center or resort. Yet it is the residents, caretakers and American supporters like Nina who make it such a warm and loving community for Israel’s special-needs community.

When Nina and her husband Ed’s son, Max, was 8, they discovered a rare brain tumor that needed immediate resection, ultimately causing extensive damage. The resulting major behavioral and medical problems following the surgery turned the Pauls’ world upside-down, including the need for specific residential rehabilitative assistance, which was not available in their hometown of Cincinnati.

“If we would have had a place like this in the United States for Max, who knows where he might have been today?” posed Nina. She and her husband turned their pain into action.

It was Nina who helped introduce the idea of adding initiatives for people with special needs to the growing portfolio of partnerships of Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF). Through her efforts, ALEH Negev became the first of four partners brought on who provide services and support to people with special needs and disabilities.

With the help of Jewish National Fund, ALEH Negev provides unparalleled rehabilitative services, medical care and education for people with severe disabilities, encouraging them to reach their potential for communication and development. The village, the only of its kind in Israel, empowers residents and outpatients to develop a greater degree of independence and become productive members of Israeli society.

Five years ago, Shraga Evers, a Dutch immigrant to Israel, started a volunteer pilot program at ALEH Negev with a handful of volunteers from Europe to work with the residents. Inspired by this, Nina worked with JNF to establish the Max Paul Volunteer Program at ALEH Negev. This evolution of the program will expand the village’s capacity for volunteers, allowing caring and passionate people from around the world to live and learn in the village.

Aleh 3_volunteer
(Courtesy photo)

Four years ago, Rhonda Forman, of Newton, visited ALEH Negev while on a JNF President’s Society mission. She promised herself that she would return in a more permanent way. During the summer of 2016, Rhonda moved to Be’er Sheva to fulfill the commitment she made to herself. “Not only was it an honor and a privilege to give my time to ALEH Negev, but it was a life-changing experience,” she recounted. JNF Executive Director Sara Hefez shared: “ALEH Negev is an amazingly special place for Rhonda and so many others. Every visitor who comes through their doors becomes a part of the extended family. The loving care each resident receives is unparalleled.”

In 2018 alone, ALEH Negev hosted 50 international volunteers and is aiming for a 50 percent projected growth to welcome 90 volunteers in 2019, which Evers is certain will exceed their projections.

“At the core of the program is the unparalleled opportunity to integrate learning and giving, while working with the most vulnerable population,” said Michal Shani, director of the Max Paul Volunteer Program.

Volunteers can spend anywhere from three weeks to a year living and working alongside the residents and caretakers. The program also strives to integrate the participants within the Negev’s diverse communities and cultures.

For Daniel Hunt, a 19-year-old volunteer from Australia, the lessons learned at ALEH Negev were more impactful than he could have imagined. “When I first arrived, I did not think it was possible to connect with people who have severe disabilities, many of whom are completely non-communicative,” said Hunt, who did indeed forge strong bonds with residents over his six-week stay.

“Every person takes something different away from their time there. It resets the volunteers’ views of what is important and what is trivial,” said Evers, reflecting on the experiences of the volunteers whose lives have been transformed by their involvement.

And it’s just the beginning.

The Max Paul Volunteer Program will offer internships in various medical-professional specialties, including hydrotherapy; speech; occupational and physical therapies; therapeutic horseback-riding; pet, dog and bird therapies; garden therapy; special education; nursing; and pre-med. Jewish National Fund is working to raise the necessary funds to further expand the program, including plans to break ground on new building facilities to accommodate the growing number of volunteers and interns.

A version of this article original appeared on JNS.

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