Planting Hope

By
June 21, 2010 23:43

Husband and wife helping kids with special needs.




DAVID AND ZIVA SCHAPIRO. ‘Many times when parents

Merkaz Rakefet 311. (photo credit:Courtesy)

It’s a Sunday morning at the Ligdol V’lifroah Child and Family Services facility in Ramat Beit Shemesh, just outside Jerusalem.

Known locally as Merkaz Rakefet, the modern well-equipped center is bustling. Phones are ringing nonstop and almost all of the 10 colorful, toyfilled therapy rooms are in use.

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Little children hold on tightly to their parents’ hands as they are led through the sun-filled, air-conditioned hallways to participate in a variety of speech therapy, occupational therapy or other type of learning support session.

“It’s always busy like this,” explains Ziva Schapiro, founder and director of the center, who made aliya with her husband, David, and two of their four children (the other two were born here) in January 1990. “We provide services for about 450 children a month, about 2,000 children a year.”

David, a senior partner with the Yigal Arnon law firm in Tel Aviv, is sitting by her side. He has decided to join us for this interview because the creation of the center and its day-today operations has become an integral part of the Schapiro family’s world since it was founded in their living room in 2001.

Since then, the husband and wife team have invested heavily – both financially and in their time – in the center, donating everything from the premises, which they own, to purchasing equipment and funding the salaries of some 40 staff members.

(Some of the day-to-day expenses are also covered by referrals from health funds and the Education Ministry.) While the couple does not seem quite ready to sing their own praises just yet, for the first time in 10 years they have decided to talk publicly about their work, which has helped thousands of local children improve their chances to succeed in their lives.

“We have no choice now,” explains David. “We want to expand; there is so much that we can do, that we want to do and we know there is a demand.”

Ziva, who has run the center as a volunteer, refusing to draw a salary for the past decade, adds: “It is only recently that we realized the scope of what is happening here is much more than we can personally afford.”

On that note, say the two New Yorkers, unless outside funding is found soon they will have to start making some serious cutbacks.

According to David and Ziva, the demand for services to help children with learning disabilities such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and attention deficit disorder (ADD) and special needs like Downs syndrome just keeps on growing. And although patrons at the center, which takes on clients from Beit Shemesh and the surrounding area, are required to pay for sessions (albeit with subsidies from the health funds), the couple still finds itself donating millions of shekels each year to keep the center up and running.

As well as the wide variety of therapies, Merkaz Rakefet is also involved in special education teaching in several nearby schools, offers scholarships to those facing financial difficulties and provides constant advice to bewildered parents who are navigating the state system for the first time.

“Many times when parents first come here they do not know what is wrong with their child, only that there is a motor delay or that something is not quite right,” says Ziva, who last month received recognition for her volunteerism from Minister of Welfare and Social Services Isaac Herzog in a special ceremony in Jerusalem. “It can be a scary time for a parent and we try to hold their hand through the whole system.”

The center also runs a lending library that includes books in Hebrew and English on topics related to children and special needs, as well as a games library where parents are given advice on how to play with their kids to improve motor or language skills.

“There are so many parents who simply do not know how to play with their kids,” points out David, as he shows me the library, which is housed in the center’s bomb shelter.

The center also provides well-needed support for the many English speaking families in the neighborhood. Ziva points out that all staff at the center are bilingual, though all reports are written in Hebrew. The center is “very much part of the Israeli system.”

“If we have parents that don’t understand Hebrew, then our staff will sit down and go over the Hebrew-language evaluations with them,” she says, highlighting that she contributed to a special pamphlet published by aliya organization Nefesh B’Nefesh for immigrant parents of children with special needs and learning disabilities.

“Ziva is amazing, she held my hand throughout this whole process,” says one mother, whose special needs son received occupational therapy at Merkaz Rakefet several years ago.

“There were no therapists available at the center so Ziva personally volunteered to work with us. When we had to apply for the [special needs] kindergarten, she came with us to the meeting at the municipality and was our translator.”

“Ziva likes to have a hand in the lives of each and every child that is treated here but she is very modest about it,” David says. “She could be out fund-raising or marketing the center, but then the whole nature of what we do here would completely change because Ziva would not be able to stay involved in the day-today running of her own center and we are just not ready to do that yet.”

ZIVA AND David Schapiro were both born in New York – he in Monsey and she in Long Beach – and both grew up in extremely Zionist families that later all moved to Israel.

“Almost all our family members on both sides live in the Jerusalem area,” laughs David, as he launches into a description of how he met Ziva at Yeshiva University in the early 1980s and decided on first sight “I’m gonna marry that woman.” Married in July, 1984, David describes how on their first date he told Ziva that he planned to make aliya at the beginning of 1990 and asked if she would be interested too.

“I told her that I was going to move to Israel in 1990 and she agreed to it,” he says, adding that in January 1990, the couple did indeed make aliya.

“Neither of us knew what we would end up doing here but things seem to have worked out for us.”

Within a few short months, David found himself working at Yigal Arnon, the country’s fourth biggest law firm, and today he is a senior partner running the international transactions department.

Ziva, a trained occupational therapist, was working for one of the health funds until a personal experience with one of her children caused her to consider setting up a private practice at home.

“I had a personal understanding as a parent of how difficult the system can be here for a parent,” she says. “I found myself spending most of my time coordinating the many different services that a child with a learning disability or special need requires. There seemed to be absolutely no cooperation between all the different therapists.”

David joins in: “After Ziva set up her private clinic, I began to notice that she was on the phone all the time on behalf of her clients, coordinating between therapists, teachers and doctors. There seemed to be nowhere that could provide these services under one roof.”

It was then that David suggested to his wife to open up a comprehensive center that would “pull all the pieces together,” and save parents from having to run around to all different places.

“Initially I thought it might be profitable, but very quickly I discovered that this was a misguided notion,” he says. “What I did find out, however, is that there was a huge need for such a center.”

Moving from her home into a rented apartment fairly quickly, Ziva then hired five additional therapists to work with her and Merkaz Rakefet kicked off by helping roughly 40 children a month, most of them referrals from the health funds.

“The most important point for me was to coordinate our services,” she says. “Even today we hold weekly staff meetings where each therapist presents the case for each child that we work with at the center. This is important because the therapists can then help each other out when a particular problem presents itself.”

In 2005, Ziva moved her staff into their current abode and added even more therapists.

“At first we thought it was much too big for us, that there was too much space here,” says David. “But we quickly filled it and now we are running out of space here too.”

With the need for such services obviously growing, Ziva and David decided to make Ligdol V’lifroah into a charity so that they could raise funds.

“We did this about five years ago but have not done much fund-raising since then, only small amounts,” says Ziva.

Adds David: “It is very hard to fund-raise for a center that essentially deals with children who, for the most part, appear to be normal, healthy kids. Most of them just have something that is slightly off; they are the children who were always sitting at the back of the classroom falling off their chair or losing their pencils when we were in school.

They all appear normal but struggle when it comes to actual learning, and what we do here is provide them with the tools to help them succeed.”

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