More than a helping hand

At the House of Wheels, disabled youngsters discover what they are capable of achieving.

By SUSAN DE LA FUENTE
April 11, 2007 10:18
helping hand feat 88

helping hand feat 88. (photo credit: )

 
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It's an unassuming, low-lying structure tucked away at the end of a quiet, tree-lined street in Herzliya Pituah near the Kfar Shmaryahu junction. The House of Wheels - once a private house, erstwhile a restaurant - has for the past 17 years been the site of coveted weekend retreats for groups of handicapped youngsters, winning three major awards for volunteerism in the process. All difficulties are sublimated here, all unwanted baggage left behind for a welcome respite. The spunky youngsters and their counselors are a familiar sight in the neighborhood as they navigate around to the stores, the cinema or down to the seafront. Some regularly appear at the local synagogue to join in prayer services. Not only is this special house a blessing for the children, but also a boon for their hard-pressed parents, giving them an occasional break from their offspring. How did this venture begin? Back in 1980 at the initiative of the late Miriam Schwartz, a small group of volunteers and disabled children got together at Michmoret for a Shabbat by the sea. Schwartz later founded the Shai Society for the rehabilitation and care of handicapped children. The society's logo depicts a small figure dancing in a wheelchair, and its proud motto is: "Equal among equals." Its mission statement is "to support and advance the social abilities, integration and independence of severely physically handicapped children and young adults and to ease the burden on their families." Every week, in five-week cycles, another group of disabled children of similar ages is accommodated. The eager campers, from nine to 21 years old, draw up in their vans at midday on Fridays. Some will also stop by on Thursday evenings to help their leaders shop for food and cook for the weekend. As they are fifteen in a group with an equal number of counselors, they get individual attention. The white stucco three-bedroom house has been specially adapted for its inhabitants, who are mostly wheelchair bound. Doorways are wide, and in the kitchen, low work surfaces with ample kneehole space have been installed so the youngsters can prepare their own meals. The yard area outside is scuffed by the eager traffic of the housemates and their social activities. One large multi-purpose room manages amazingly to function as kitchen and dining room, improvised dorm for counselors, and a center for the varied weekday activities. Along the periphery of the site are three small offices. Though the House of Wheels program started in Herzliya, it has developed and expanded into a network of four houses, the others located in Jerusalem, the Negev and the Galilee. The 24 weekend groups of youngsters have youth leaders who are all post-army volunteers, the majority 22 to 30 years old. Besides the weekend scheduling, there are joyful holiday activities, such as parties for Hanukka and Purim, tree planting on Tu Bishvat or a frolic on the beach. Summer camps are the highlight of the year for these city kids, and give them an exhilarating taste of the outdoors. The intense, fun-packed, six-day cycle of activities features exciting new experiences like horse or camel riding, water chutes, kayaking, and camping out. Avremi Torem, a 43-year-old with a business administration background, is general director of the professional team of employees. As the program can only accept one in four applicants for weekend activities, the harder cases receive preference - kids with difficult health problems like muscular dystrophy, cancer or cerebral palsy, or underprivileged youngsters who desperately need enrichment. As far as school is concerned, some youngsters attend special education frameworks while others receive a regular education in integrated classes. As for manpower, the organization could not function without a dedicated corps of 350 volunteers who contribute some 160,000 hours on the job each year. Most of them remain closely connected for a three- or four-year period. The leadership strives for a balance of male and female volunteers on weekends, with varied levels of religious observance, and is impressed by the interaction. Many are students, while others work in banking, hi-tech or other areas. The most important thing is for counselors to relate naturally to the kids, to befriend them like big brothers and sisters, and keep in touch with them between weekend meetings. The annual budget is NIS 6.5 million, with 90 percent coming from donations and private funding from home and abroad. Though large corporations have made generous contributions, each quarter Avremi has to work anew to raise funds. The reason is that only 10 percent of the budget is covered by governmental agencies like the ministry of labor and social affairs. Of every shekel contributed, 90 percent goes on activities and 10 percent on salaries. Most members of the board are volunteers. Eli Rivlin, the affable director of the Herzliya center, is widely experienced in community affairs and education. He was director of a community center and a boarding school, and has worked with troubled youth. The aim of the House of Wheels goes beyond nurture and encouragement, Rivlin told Metro. The youngsters must discover what they are capable of achieving, learn to function normatively in the outside world, and become mature, responsible adults. On the topic of nurturing, a family-like atmosphere is favored over an institutional one. The house is a warm, caring place, intended as a second home for the children, who are encouraged to be independent and integrate into the Herzliya community and use public transport. As the bond between kids and counselors is a special one, communication often flows more freely than at home, where kids tend to be over-protected. At home, helpless dependence may be the rule. If the children cannot eat, drink, shower, dress or go out unaided, it is difficult to have a family relationship that allows for emotional growth - a frustrating situation for an adolescent yearning for independence. Rivlin told the inspiring story of how a disabled new immigrant, aged 17, was greatly assisted by one of the counselors in her group. The girl's mother is a single parent from the former Soviet Union with a poor knowledge of Hebrew. The counselor helped this small family tackle all the bureaucratic obstacles that faced them, speaking to social workers, schools, physiotherapists and the health ministry on their behalf. Finally, with the aid of other counselors in her group, NIS 5,000 was raised so the girl could get a wheelchair of her own. On weekdays, the four Houses of Wheels run a total of 35 courses, including art, drama, theater, journalism, computers and communications - some for youngsters, and others for graduates of the program ranging from 21 to 40 years old, who have a different framework. Graduates attend workshops twice weekly that emphasize life skills, teaching them to cope with the world of work, budgeting and basic housekeeping. Cooking courses are also available. One proud production is their own newspaper published with the help of Yediot Aharonot, with a similar format to the popular Hebrew daily. A graduate leadership committee organizes the 3-5 p.m. Sunday afternoon activity as an independent venture. They do all the planning, costing, inviting speakers, arranging for equipment and organizing transportation on their own. All alumnae are required to keep to a time schedule and understand the value of money. A youngster who misses his ride at the meeting point has to pay - quite understandable in view of the heavy transportation expenses borne by the organization. "There's no free ride here!" stresses Rivlin. Most graduates keep in touch with the organization and some serve on the board. Some drive, and some hold jobs mainly acquired through the training and work placement program. One is a counselor for the weekend program. Hanni, 26, a slim dark-haired woman from Holon with an infectious smile (not wheelchair bound), is employed at a large supermarket chain. She relies on the House of Wheels for courses and enrichment activities. A recent cooking project was making hamentaschen, which they happily distributed at the Beit Loewenstein rehabilitation hospital in Ra'anana. Hanni is now learning to surf the web, and access video and radio programs on a computer. Recently, she won a prize in a ping-pong competition, she recounts proudly. Future needs of the program include new accommodations in Herzliya Pituah. The municipality has allocated one and a half dunams (slightly less than half an acre) of land for this purpose. Fundraising is by naming, and so far $800,000 has been collected towards the total cost of $2.5 million. A special eight-seater van for the disabled is also on the wish-list at a cost of $100,000. According to Avremi Torem, there is sufficient demand to open another five Houses of Wheels in Israel, if resources were available. A disabled child growing up in the House of Wheels will naturally broaden his mindset and see the world with different eyes, but there is another side of the story. Elon, a native of Herzliya, spoke of his experiences: He served as counselor for 10 years and later as board member. "It was a wonderful time that changed my life," he told Metro. When his group graduated, Elon acknowledged what he had learned from them and that the moments they had shared would always be engraved on his heart. For further information log on to www.beitgalgalim.org.il or email beit-galgalim@barak.net.il.

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