A visit to the Shutaf summer day camp in Jerusalem by Yesh Atid MKs on Tuesday highlighted the importance of inclusion for children and teens with special needs within Israeli society.
Yesh Atid’s Dov Lipman, Ronen Hoffman, and Karin Elharar toured Shutaf’s facilities, currently based at the Kangaroo Family Center near Malha Mall, and met with the camp’s administrators, campers and counselors.
Shutaf was founded in 2007 for children and teens ages 6- 21, both with and without special needs, creating an atmosphere of inclusion for those with disabilities.
Three quarters of campers at Shutaf, which also provides afterschool programs throughout the year, are generally children with special needs. This year’s camp, which runs August 4-22, is the largest yet, with 75 children and teens attending.
Chief operations officer and co-founder Miriam Avraham said the meeting emphasized the importance of inclusion and informal education, aspects the Shutaf program stresses.
“The more we include, the more we put different kinds of children together, the more the barriers will fall and people will get to know each other,” Avraham said. “They will just understand that people come in all sorts of shapes.”
Avraham said Shutaf’s philosophy goes against the Welfare and Social Services Ministry’s policy of classifying special needs children into different categories, which “fractures society” and impedes inclusion.
Lipman felt this classification system should be addressed, and said the three MKs would write a joint letter to Welfare and Social Services Minister Meir Cohen, requesting a reevaluation of the policy.
“We feel the country can be doing far more, and a lot of that has to do with equal opportunities,” Lipman said.
“It was important for us to come today to see firsthand what Shutaf is all about, to see first of all can this be a model for the broader country, and also how we can help them in particular.”
Beth Steinberg, executive director and co-founder of the organization, said the MKs’ visit provided a glimpse into the challenges related to disability.
“Families who have children with disabilities are more likely to be below the poverty line and we see a lot of families in serious need, not just because of disability but also because of poverty,” Steinberg said.
Tuition for one week of camp, with busing, costs NIS 700, but only 14 percent of Shutaf’s budget is supported by campers’ families, according to Steinberg. About 70- 80% of the organization’s funding comes from private donors and federations, primarily located in the US and UK.
“This is a program founded and run for children in Israel,” she said, adding that the Jerusalem Municipality has been willing to provide only minimal funding or services. “It needs to be supported more by Israel.”
Hoffman called Shutaf “an amazing project,” and commended the organization’s emphasis on informal education.
“I’m very moved to see that these kids are happy. Obviously there’s something so right and good about this project,” Hoffman said, noting his party should work with Shutaf in the future to help find a permanent home for all of its programs.
Elharar also pledged to help the group going forward.
“There should be more and more initiatives like this,” Elharar said. “I would be more than happy to help in talking with the ministries, in helping them to get donations from philanthropy groups in Israel.”
For Elharar, the visit to Shutaf reminded her of why she ran for Knesset in the first place, as she had previously headed a legal clinic that helped children with disabilities obtain their welfare, health and education rights.
“I was always talking about integration into society and the impact it had on society itself, as well as on the children being part of a group of children,” she said. “This is the realization of my dream.”
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