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(photo credit: Courtesy [file])
Just over a year ago, Ori Friedland, then 18, was completing a leadership course in the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel as part of an optional pre-army year of community service. As a certified guide, he would be able to use his new skills in the army. Hiking and nature study were an integral part of his plans for the future.
His life changed forever in November 2006. A fall while leading a difficult climb in the Negev left him paralyzed from the shoulders down.
He was evacuated by helicopter to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba and after a period in intensive care was transferred to Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, where he was hospitalized for eight more months.
The future would seem bleak, particularly for an active young person who loved the outdoors.
But just over a year after his accident, Ori is studying in a pre-university program at Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael and is leading hikes and workshops for children with special needs. He's also the English-speaking guide for a birthright group of special needs participants - all under the auspices of Lotem Integrated Nature Studies.
Ori is the third child of Paula and Jonathan Friedland of Haifa. In order to reduce the commute to and from Tel Hashomer, where he receives rehabilitation therapy, the family has moved temporarily to Zichron Ya'acov. On a cold but sunny winter day, Metro sat with Ori and Paula in their garden, which overlooks the sea, while he described his experiences this past year. He is upbeat and optimistic, happy with all his current activities. But he remembers every moment of the accident that changed his life.
"I fell in a very dangerous place," says Ori. "It took an hour and a half to get me out of there," he adds, recalling that he had been fully conscious the entire time. In fact, he said, he sang in order to calm down the group members who had seen him fall.
As Ori lay waiting, Paula, a teacher and yoga instructor, had been notified of the accident, but not of its severity. She and Jonathan, a lawyer, and his older brother and sister, spent the next several months by his bedside at Tel Hashomer, encouraging him through the trying days as he worked at his therapy.
"This pre-army year of service was ideal for me," says Ori, describing the project, which combined volunteer work and leadership training with ecology and nature studies. He had already gained some leadership experience through his involvement with Noam (the youth movement of the Moriah Masorti Congregation) and by working as a counselor at Camp Ramah Israel.
With so many friends from these groups, his hospital room was always packed with visitors and he was greatly strengthened by their support.
After his release from hospital, his love of nature and leadership experience led him to Lotem, a group whose name is an acronym for the Hebrew words "Integrated Nature Studies."
Situated in the pastoral Emek Hashalom in Yokneam, Moshava Lotem was the vision of moshav native Amos Ziv, who in 1992 saw a group of visually impaired teenagers hiking and realized how inaccessible most nature reserves are for those with physical limitations. He then worked to involve the JNF (Jewish National Fund), the IDF, SPNI (Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel), the local council, the National Insurance Institute and the Education Ministry in establishing a nature studies center specifically adapted for the physically and mentally challenged.
Today, Lotem is chaired by Sorin Hershko, an IDF veteran who was wounded in 1976 during Operation Yonatan, the operation to rescue Israeli hostages held in Entebbe, Uganda.
Emek Hashalom boasts a small farm surrounded by orchards and olive groves, and nearby, the country's first accessible nature trail runs through Nahal Hashofet. Lotem was active in establishing the trail, which opened in 2002.
Lotem stresses a multidisciplinary approach. Its guides receive instruction from special education experts from the Seminar Oranim Teachers' College and the Center for Educational Technology, and learn how to create hiking trails and workshop facilities that are wheelchair-accessible or appropriate for the blind, deaf, or mentally or emotionally challenged. Organizations such as Ilan bring to Lotem children and youth with physical and developmental problems. The Lotem team meets with the organization's staff prior to each activity to work out needs and priorities, as well as a time frame.
"The program provides fun, but is also a learning experience in the concepts of nature, the change of seasons, flora and fauna, water sources and their relationship to Jewish history and Bible stories," says Ori.
Subjects addressed include animals and how they use their senses, as well as identifying tastes and scents of plants for use in food preparation. And always, Lotem stresses the need to preserve the environment.
Lotem is a multicultural organization. Children and adults - secular and religious, Jewish, Arab, and Druse - with physical or mental limitations that would make other nature expeditions almost impossible - can participate in its activities. Not all of its activities take place at Emek Hashalom, either, although 15,000 people a year visit the Yokneam facility.
The organization's after-school nature clubs help young people develop motor skills and foster values such as cooperation and perseverance.
The workshops at Emek Hashalom include winemaking in one of the only wheelchair-accessible winepresses in the world. In the winemaking workshop, participants hold on to ropes while treading the grapes. Explanatory materials have been adapted for special educational needs, such as three-dimensional illustrations for those with impaired vision and alternative communication tables for autistic children.
Although Israeli-born, Ori is the son of American olim and speaks fluent English. He was appointed as a guide for a recent birthright program that included 11 special-needs college students along with their supporters. The group was introduced to Israel through Lotem's workshops and nature trails.
When asked how Ori adapted so bravely to the change in his life, Paula explains: "He always had self-esteem and confidence and [they've] carried him through this experience."
Paula, too, has made changes in her life. In addition to teaching yoga, she now raises funds for Lotem. "There's a need to increase activities and to be able to offer them to more people," she says.
"Sometimes, an organization or a school or a community center pays for an activity, but sometimes there's no sponsor and funding is needed. The infrastructure at Emek Hashalom also needs improving, there are only two wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. This isn't sufficient when a group arrives for an activity.
"And," she says, "there are the supplementary expenses like transportation, guards, and medics - which are not always covered by the sponsoring organization.
Ori's accident involved his whole family and an entire community. But far from being defeated by his disability, he has positive and exciting plans for his future.