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little girl, 10 years old, is gently led down a dark, silent corridor. She is retarded and walks with difficulty. A young woman is holding her under each arm, supporting most of the child's weight. They come to a door that the woman opens, revealing a softly lit room carpeted with pillows and cushions.
The child is led into the room and helped into a sitting position, atop a pillow. As the woman closes the door, the room is suffused with soft music, colored lights and a floral scent. The little girl's senses are engaged and become alert. She becomes particularly curious about the slowly moving colored lights and begins to focus her attention on them. The woman talks to the child softly, laughs with her and notes her reactions to the stimuli in the room.
Not far away, in a larger room that looks like a gymboree, physically disabled children are helped to climb, swing and balance, while others exercise weak muscles as they are slowly guided through the water of a large swimming pool.
These children, and hundreds like them, are developing new skills and gaining hope for better lives at Beit Issie Shapiro.
For more than 25 years this world-renowned nonprofit facility, located in Ra'anana, has championed the rights of the disabled, designed programs for their development, and fought for their inclusion in mainstream society.
Says Naomi Stuchiner, the founder and president/CEO, "Beit Issie has become what it is through a partnership with various organizations and the help of many dedicated and talented individuals."
In 1981 Stuchiner started the fledgling charity, providing a handful of services to 16 retarded children. She has guided its evolution into a pace-setting facility that impacts 16,000 people locally, nationally, and worldwide.
Growing up in Johannesburg, Stuchiner was imbued with the ethical principles of her Orthodox parents, Issie and Lucie Shapiro, who taught her the importance of compassion backed by tangible good deeds. Her father spearheaded the establishment of the Selwin Segal Hostel, South Africa's first Jewish residential treatment facility for the disabled.
After earning a degree in social work and marrying her husband of 35 years, Stuchiner made aliya and began working as a social worker in a poor Tel Aviv neighborhood, where she created the area's first daycare center for working mothers. She went on to create an alternative to hospital care for the mentally ill by establishing the first community mental health clinic in Israel.
When her father died on a fundraising mission to the US in 1980, she decided that the best way to honor his memory was to create a place in Israel dedicated to the treatment of children with disabilities. Thus Beit Issie Shapiro was born.
Today, it offers 13 categories of programs and services for the "developmentally disabled," a term that includes mental retardation, learning disorders, autism, cerebral palsy, sensory and motor disorders. While there are some programs for adults, such as a gymnasium with specially adapted exercise equipment, the core of Beit Issie's mission is children.
The programs and services cover children from six months to 12 years old. Major efforts are directed toward infants and toddlers because, as Stuchiner explains, "The period between six months to three years is critical, as the brain is still plastic. There is a real opportunity to effect changes."
The staff at Beit Issie are particularly proud of the Early Intervention Center - the first in Israel - that uses different types of therapy to treat developmental problems early in the child's life. Remedial activities include approaches ranging from speech therapy and computer-assisted learning to art, music, reflexology and massage.
At mealtime, the severely retarded small children are encouraged by staff members to try to feed themselves as much as possible.
"Mealtime is a very therapeutic time for the children," explains executive director Jean Judes. "These children have difficulties eating - some with problems swallowing, others with a lack of sensation in their mouths - and it often takes their parents more than an hour to feed them even a small amount. It becomes a major issue at home. Therefore, it's important for us to teach them to be as independent as possible."
With its full basket of innovative services and a dedicated staff, the Early Intervention Center has achieved some extraordinary results: Many of its "graduates" have gone on to regular kindergartens and other mainstream educational programs.
"Our focus," says Stuchiner, "is not just on the disabled child but also on the disabled child's family. The whole family is affected, so we have many support services for parents and grandparents."
Buoyed by the success of the treatment services in Ra'anana, Beit Issie has set up an Early Learning Center for Arab children in the nearby town of Kalansua. This reflects a major goal that has driven Beit Issie since its inception: that every one of its programs and services be replicable and that disabled children nationwide and worldwide be able to benefit from the innovative approaches developed in Ra'anana.
Beit Issie publishes the results of its activities in international academic journals and offers certified continuing education and training courses for local and international childcare professionals.
The facility in Ra'anana has a wide array of treatment facilities under one roof. A Challenge and Swing Room provides older children with opportunities to exercise and test themselves with swings, pulleys and different types of climbing equipment. A gymnasium is equipped with specially modified treadmills, rowing devices, Swedish ladders and weights. A swimming and recreation center features a small swimming pool and a specially equipped near-Olympic sized one for hydrotherapy programs in which disabled children are moved through the water by the staff and encouraged to exercise arms and legs. A dental clinic with special furnishings, lighting and color designed to calm frightened children offers full dental care, provided by more than 100 volunteer dentists and hygienists.
One of the center's most innovative features is the Snoezelen. A room designed for controlled sensory stimulation, it is furnished with soft cushions and outfitted with projectors, flashing lights and colors, audio equipment playing soft music, and a ventilator wafting fragrant scents. Children are brought in one at a time with their therapist. In each session, the child is allowed to decide what to focus on - an interesting thing to touch, pretty moving lights to watch - and the therapist follows the child's lead in deciding the types and amounts of stimuli to use.
"The Snoezelen was developed in Holland, but we built the first one in Israel and conducted the first research on it in the world," says Judes.
"We have an extraordinarily talented and dedicated team of workers here, both staff and volunteers," she adds.
The fundraising staff is talented as well. With a reported 2004 income of $6,622,500 from government subsidies, local and international donors, training and continuing education courses, and parents and volunteer fundraising activity, the center provides its clientele with state-of-the-art facilities and can engage in a significant building program. Thus Beit Issie can help children who are both disabled and economically disadvantaged.
"No child is ever turned away because their family lacks the money to pay for services. We have a scholarship fund, and we gave out NIS 250,000 in scholarships in 2005," says Judes.
Looking ahead, the staff hope to expand their efforts to help the disabled throughout Israel.
"The things that Beit Issie Shapiro does are not just for our children in Ra'anana," says Stuchiner. "After 25 years, I think we've made an impact far beyond what the children in this building need. Be it creating programs or teaching and sharing knowledge and doing research, we will continue to make a change in Israel. People with disabilities will be related to differently and accommodated by legislation. Their needs will be met with better services, and they will have equal opportunities."
To contribute, volunteer or learn more about Beit Issie Shapiro,
call (09) 770-1222 or visit www.beitissie.org.il