Esti Eshkol 88 248.
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Organization: Hibuk Rishon (First Hug)
Hours a week: At least six, often more
Family status: Divorced, lives with her partner of five years
Residence: Florentin, Tel Aviv
Profession: Journalist, mostly scientific journals
Most meaningful moment: When she received an e-mail from a friend suggesting she might want to volunteer for Hibuk Rishon. "When I saw it the world stopped. Someone, something had been sent to save me from the situation I was in. I had always wanted to volunteer for something and straightaway I knew that this was it."
Esti Eshkol apologizes in advance in case she starts crying during our interview. She is going to be talking about something which affects her deeply, her work as a volunteer for Hibuk Rishon, the organization set up six years ago with the aim of providing love and care to babies abandoned in hospitals.
"I'm an emotional person, it's true," says the attractive and youthful-looking Eshkol, "but I'm strong too. If not, I could not bear to part with the babies I've become so attached to over the years. Once the baby leaves the hospital, I know I will never see him or her again and it's very hard. We're even forbidden to know where they are."
The organization was established in 2002 by Dr. Tamar Schlesinger, a social worker who saw abandoned babies in the hospitals she worked in and decided she must do something to provide the love and warmth that the nurses had no spare time for, overburdened as they were with providing for the physical needs of their charges. She started slowly, caring for one baby, then another until her care and devotion spiraled into the nationwide organization it is today.
Today Hibuk Rishon can call on a list of several thousand volunteers who are active in 20 hospitals.
In the nearly two years since she joined Hibuk Rishon, Eshkol has taken care of 10 babies, but she has never forgotten the first baby she was assigned to.
"It was at Wolfson Hospital and she was a little Arab baby, about three months old. The parents already had four children and they didn't want her because she was born with all kinds of intestinal problems. She was operated on several times and I stayed with her during the time. Afterward, I used to sing her kibbutz songs and she would look into my eyes. I really felt that she was waiting for me and I'd often go on days that weren't officially mine to hold her in my arms."
She does not think that being a kibbutz child - she was born and raised on Kibbutz Beit Alfa to sabra parents - has affected her decision to volunteer with babies, although as a child she slept in the children's house away from her parents as was the custom in the kibbutz movement then.
"I didn't suffer, it suited me," she says. Perhaps a stronger motivation is the fact that her only daughter, now 38 and living in Amsterdam with her Dutch husband, does not have any children.
"I was only 21 when I had her, and now I feel a real need to have grandchildren, but both she and her husband grew up in broken homes and I think my daughter had a very hard time growing up in a single-parent home. I hope one day they will decide to give me a grandchild, but until then, what I do fills an emptiness in my life."
At the moment Eshkol's baby is a tiny Filipino - she calls him Tom - who was born with many disabilities and, unless a family decides to adopt him, may spend his life in an institution once he leaves the hospital.
When Eshkol arrives at the premature baby unit she puts on a white gown and goes to pick the baby up.
"He's waiting for me," she says with conviction. "He calms down straightaway the minute he sees me if he'd been crying when I arrive. I pick him up and just hold him for two or three hours and the time goes by very quickly. I feed him, change his diaper, sing to him and rock him to sleep. But mostly I hold him because that's what he needs and that's what he doesn't have unless I or another volunteer spends time with him."
Tom has a twin sister who was quickly adopted because she was normal. But he is badly deformed and, like many of the other babies who are cared for by Hibuk Rishon volunteers, no one is ever likely to adopt him. For Eshkol it makes no difference.
"When he looks into my eyes, I forget that he's not a normal baby," she says, her eyes filling with tears as she had promised.
Eshkol is now so devoted to her volunteering that she considers it more important than her work.
"All my life I knew I would do some kind of volunteer work, but I had to struggle to make a living and to survive so I could never spare the time. Now I feel a great compulsion to fit this into my day, and it's clear to me that it's a very good part of my life; it gives me more than I can say."
If you know someone who volunteers in some worthy cause and would be a suitable candidate for the National Service column, please send details to [email protected]