On Thursday, June 9, KKL-JNF held a special accessibility happening in Bet Keshet Forest in the north of the country, near Nazareth. The event was organised in cooperation with the non-profit association Access Israel and all the visitors, both with and without disabilities, enjoyed a day to remember that included guiding, sport and art, music and other unexpected experiences. It was a beautifully sunny day, perfect for the dozens of visitors who arrived at the forest in the morning for their special excursion along the Forester’s House Path. The path has been made accessible to those with physical limitations and to the hard of hearing, thanks to generous donations from the Van Der Straaten family of Perth, Australia. The enthusiastic crowd included parents and children from the Alut association in Karmiel, a group from the day-care centre for the elderly in Afula, and residents of Akim’s Dror group home in Safed for the mentally challenged.
The Forester’s House Path descends on a gentle slope from the renovated Forester’s House (the focal point of the whole visitors complex) to an assembly point, which gives a stunning panoramic view over Mount Tabor and the Jezreel Valley. Explanation, activity and experience sites had been set up all along the path so that everyone could share the interesting sensory experiences awaiting them. The visitors were warmly welcomed by Etti Azoulai, PR representative of KKL-JNF’s northern region, who gave a short explanation on the tour in which they were about to take part. She was joined by tour guide Haim Katz, who described the actual forest and KKL-JNF’s tree planting work in it, as well as its fire prevention activities. He emphasized that “the trail has been specially built with a gentle slope, to make the descent easy and effortless and to eliminate any worry about falling. Also, the path has been edged with large, prominent curb stones so that those with vision disorders can walk along it confidently.” And indeed, whoever wanted to experience a short walk along the path without seeing anything, was invited to do so with their eyes covered and only a walking stick for assistance.
Among the visitors enjoying the jaunt along the path were quite a few who could not walk, but were in no way left behind, thanks to the mobility scooters that had been placed on-site ahead of time by KKL-JNF, with the generous assistance of Afikim Electric Vehicles Ltd. At the sides of the route, wooden benches have been set in place with generous spaces for visitors to sit in comfort. On reaching the observation point over Mount Tabor and the Jezreel Valley, the sightseers sat in the shade of a pergola facing the view, where Haim Katz explained about the “green carpet” they saw stretched below them and a little about the history of the place.
One very special visitor from the Access Israel organization was Sami Siroa, a translator into sign language, who spoke about the hard-of-hearing community in Israel, and then taught his audience a few words as well as a whole song in sign language. Yuval Wagner, chairman of Access Israel, accompanied Sami, and also Michal Rimon, the association’s director, and Koreen Bigeleizen, its projects manager who made a special point of making direct contact with many of the visitors and involving them in the activities. Access Israel has been in operation for a decade, working to improve the lives of people with disabilities, to advance their equal integration in society as a matter of right and of human dignity, and to provide them with maximum independence.
Oriah Eshta, who is blind and uses the services of a guide dog – a French bulldog – to live a full, indeed abundant existence, spoke about her childhood in Ethiopia, where she fell ill at the age of two-and-a-half with chicken pox, which affected her vision. But she did not allow the illness to weaken her hands and, in her own words, in spite of and perhaps thanks to her vision disability, she now works successfully as a masseuse, treating and curing patients with the utmost sensitivity.
One of the various experience sites featured a taste test for the visitors: volunteers had their eyes covered with an eye mask and then tasted different ice creams, trying to discover what the flavour was, without peeping. The participation and success rates were excellent! Another experience site was Baruch the Drummer, who performs on a goblet drum – a darbuka -- and arranges musical activities professionally. In a special tree-shaded music compound that had been set up, Baruch spoke about the darbuka and how it is played. He also displayed a collection of special musical instruments that he has brought back from his travels around the world. Then, after several trials and errors in the short lesson they received in playing, the whole audience, adults and children, had a great time playing under his direction.
From the music site, the participants continued along the path’s circular route, veering round back to the Forester’s House. As already stated, the path has been adapted for those with disabilities, so that all the visitors arrived without difficulty at the next stopping point: painting outdoors in the company of cognitively disabled artists. At this event, KKL-JNF’s youth guides from the Year of Service volunteer program, stuck a special body-coloured tattoo with the slogan “I love you” in sign language on everyone.
The route wound upwards, and after another short walk, volunteers and guides from the Etgarim (Challenge) association, that provides challenging outdoor activities for people with special needs, were waiting for the visitors with a rope swing. Suspended between very sturdy trees, it was designed to also carry wheelchairs. The unexpected experience of hovering between heaven and earth at a great height proved a real thrill for everyone.
At the route’s end, volunteer youth guides were again waiting and this time they focused on the children, keeping their attention with questions and games. Meanwhile at Etgarim’s nearby stopping point, those interested could play football while sitting in their wheelchairs, gaining an insight that only personal experience can provide into the fascination of football for people with limited mobility. Adjacent to the soccer pitch, a small area was devoted cycling for the disabled. They could experience riding on a hand cycle, which is operated by the hands and not, as usual, by the legs, and also tandem bikes for two people in which the person in front looks and steers, while the blind person sitting behind helps to drive the pedals and enjoys the lovely breeze.
KKL-JNF, with the assistance of donations from its friends all around the world, has been active for many years in developing accessibility in its forest sites, so that everyone in the population can take part in its outdoor expeditions. Bet Keshet has been equipped with special accessibility features for the physically limited, such as round tables with surrounding benches that are built specifically to allow enough space for a wheelchair-bound person to enter and enjoy a normal picnic with family and friends, plus benches along the routes for people to rest, and a variety of accessible explanatory signs.
Doron Kagen, who lives in Akim’s group home in Safed, summed up the day of amazing activity he had enjoyed in the magical Galilee landscape: “Beyond question, the whole issue of accessibility, for the special needs of the disabled and other special needs, has got to be placed higher on the public agenda. We’ve seen here today what can be achieved. There should be more events like today’s. Events that give the opportunity for us to meet face-to-face with the general public and, that way, to break down the stigmas that people hold. Here’s hoping that we can have many more events like this in the future. Well done - good for you, KKL-JNF!”
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