NGO uses marine activities to aid at-risk youth

“We use marine tools to help them advance and understand how to deal with difficulties in life,” CEO of Ziv Neurim tells 'Post.'

May 31, 2013 02:08
3 minute read.
Ziv Neurim maritime program

Ziv Neurim maritime program 370. (photo credit: Ziv Neurim)

When he made aliya from Morocco in the 1960s, Benny Vaknin was five years old and could only speak French.

“It was hard at school,” he recalled in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

“Not just because of the language, but there was discrimination, which was very hard to deal with.”

After finishing elementary school with difficulty, Vaknin didn’t follow his classmates to high school. Instead, he enrolled in a naval officers’ boarding school, where he learned to work at sea.

“I was there for four years, and it flipped a switch in my head,” he said. “I went through changes in terms of learning responsibility, maturity and autonomy.”

Vaknin is now CEO of Ziv Neurim, an NGO that uses marine activities to help at-risk youth deal with difficulties in their personal lives and prevent them from dropping out of the education system.

“We use marine tools to help them advance and understand how to deal with difficulties in life,” he said, “It can be things at school or learning how to work with others, gaining self-confidence and how to deal with hardships in general.”

His own experience at the naval boarding school helped him shape his professional path: After a sailors’ course in the IDF, he served in the Israel Navy for 30 years and became a lieutenant-colonel. Following the army, he briefly went into the business world, which he felt “wasn’t for [him],” before coming across Ziv Neurim.

The NGO, which has been operating in Israel for 13 years, works throughout the country and assists some 500 teenagers each year.

The program participants are divided into groups of 15.

Each group is assigned a “big brother” who accompanies them all year at sea and is in touch with their families and educators at school regularly.

Once or twice a week, the teenagers are picked up after school and go to one of the NGO’s local marine centers for two hours of water activities, including sailing, paddling and surfing.

“At sea, we create all the dilemmas that these kids encounter in life,” explained Vaknin. “At the end of each lesson, they sit together and talk about the difficulties they had at sea and how they apply to daily life.”

By way of example, he said, “if we went in the water with the wrong tools, the boat won’t sail. So we analyze what it means in life: If I don’t bring my supplies to school, it is the same issue.”

He also pointed out that “the advantage at sea is that you get immediate feedback on what you do. It’s not retrospective conclusions.”

The marine activities help the teenagers not only academically, but socially as well.

“If they used to be rivals at school, here they understand that if they don’t help each other, the boat won’t sail, and they learn that to achieve a common goal, they have to work as a team,” he said. “It unifies them.”

Once in a while, representatives of Ziv Neurim go to the teenagers’ schools and update educators about the changes the student has undergone.

According to the organization, 80 percent of the youngsters participating in the program remain in school instead of dropping out, 85% pass the bagrut (matriculation) exam, and 75% enlist in the IDF.

“I have hundreds of letters from kids telling personal stories of how it changed their lives,” Vaknin told the Post.

“What I received, I am giving back to the kids now, and it brings me back to my past.”

The organization will be holding its annual national boat competition in Ashdod next week, involving teenagers from all branches of Ziv Neurim nationwide.

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