“Our work is to teach them to dream.” For tens of thousands of at-risk Israeli children, the ability to hope for a productive future is no small feat. For these children, many of whom come from homes with socioeconomic difficulties and have experienced personal and family crises, self-confidence and academic success can be elusive.
Youth Futures, the Jewish Agency’s pioneering national program, is designed to advance children and families at risk who live in Israel’s geographic and social periphery, and teach them to dream. Introduced in 2006, the program began as a pilot project in six towns. Today, it ranges across 36 localities throughout Israel, 160 schools, and serves 12,000 people, including children and their families. More than half of the budget for the Youth Futures program is provided by the Jewish Agency, Jewish Federations of North America, UIA - Keren Hayesod, foundations and private donors, with additional funding provided by local authorities and the Education Ministry.
The framework of the Youth Futures program largely rests upon mentors, trained professionals who serve as role models and leaders in the lives of the child and his family. As Ruthi Shenfeld, director of Youth Futures explains, the most important thing that mentors provide is confidence. “Every child needs an adult who believes in him. The mentors believe that every child has the potential to grow and look to find their strengths.”
Each mentor works with 16 children and their families for a period of three years, to create and establish positive change within the lives of the children. Mentors develop an individual work plan for each child and, working together with parents and the educational team, introduce goals and objectives for each child. The activities of the Youth Futures program are centered from second grade through ninth grade.
Mentors work individually with children during school hours, as well as in groups, meet with families, and visit their charges at home. Special activities are designed during vacations to keep children active and engaged. In addition to working with the children, the mentors spend a significant amount of time working with parents, helping them improve their parenting skills and relationships with their children.
Mentors are adults – usually from the same geographic area as the Youth Futures programs they serve – who are specially selected and trained for their full-time positions.
Says Shenfeld, “We are very selective and choose only quality people who have had experience in the field.” The most important qualification, she says, is that they “have fire in their eyes, and a great soul” to work well with the children.
The Youth Futures program spans all sectors of Israeli society – secular, religious, haredi, Arab, Bedouin and Druze – and can be found in Jewish communities, Arab villages, and mixed localities as well. Shenfeld says that while they usually arrange for a cultural match between mentors and their children, the overall activity is similar in all the different localities.
Shai Eglitsky, 38, is the local director of Youth Futures in west Jerusalem. There are 128 students in his program, with most activities concentrated in the Har Homa and East Talpiot neighborhoods.
He says that the mentors personalize the program for each child. “We give them tools for each individual’s needs.” If a student lacks self-confidence and self-esteem, he notes, “we give them advice on how to raise their self-confidence. These children lead activities in order to raise their self-esteem.” If a child has difficulty organizing his work, “we create a table that shows him the most important tasks on which to focus.”
“Most of all,” he adds, “we provide a sympathetic ear, take them seriously, and provide solutions that help them believe in themselves.”
Eglitsky notes that the program cannot succeed without full participation from the children’s parents, who are the most important adults in their lives. He adds that “formal education requires something additional that complements what children are learning. Youth Futures provides a vital connection between formal and informal education.”
SHADI ABU JABER, 42, is the local director of Youth Futures in east Jerusalem. Abu Jaber, who has worked with Youth Futures for six years and himself served as a mentor in the program, says that while there is poverty and violence in east Jerusalem, “it doesn’t matter if you are in east Jerusalem or west Jerusalem, or New York – every place has its issues.”
He explains that what makes Youth Futures special is that “you are working with parents and children together. You are helping the parents to learn to work with their children.”
The program in east Jerusalem has 160 children, but Abu Jaber notes that in reality the mentors end up working with the other children in the family as well.
He notes that with large classes, teachers cannot attend to the needs of all of the students. Some students are forgotten. Youth Futures helps the forgotten children.
The Youth Futures program in east Jerusalem has recently begun a pilot program for program graduates to develop leaders and “communities” of graduates, who will be able to serve as examples and give back to the community. Agency officials hope that this alumni network program will transform the students from recipients into valued resources for their communities.
Abu Jaber emphasizes the need to expand the goals and hopes of the students in the program. “I asked a child in our program, ‘What is your life’s goal?’” Abu Jaber says that the child replied that he wants to become a truck driver like his father and his uncle. “There is no shame in being a truck driver,” he says, “but this is all that they see from their surroundings.” The next day, he took the boy to visit the university, to meet students, and to show him what he could become. “The visit changed the way he viewed his studies,” says Abu Jaber. “He is still in school, he is working hard, and he will succeed.”
Today, the Youth Futures program has 300 mentors who effect change in the lives of many people. Haim Moyal, the director of the division for education of children and youth at risk at the ministry, says, “Youth Futures program is a unique and significant program for education, and provides care for children at risk. We at the Education Ministry support it and see it as a program that combines personal contact, holistic treatment and a social and scholastic network at the highest level.”
For Eglitsky, the positive impact of Youth Futures can be understood from the following story. “One of the girls in the program had social issues, and did not have faith in herself and her abilities. Her mentor helped her realize her strengths and what she was capable of contributing. Gradually, she began to believe in herself. Together with her group, they led a project renovating the school library, added new books and, in addition, taught reading skills to first-grade students. Leading this project enabled her to understand her strengths. Her friends began to appreciate her, and she found her place both socially and academically. Working on this project, together with her mentor and the rest of the group, helped position her in a positive direction for a successful future.”
Abu Jaber adds, “When I look at children who have experienced so many different challenges, and I see the light in their eyes, it gives me the feeling that I am doing something worthwhile.”
East and west, north and south, the agency’s Youth Futures program is helping students remain in school, excel and become productive members of society. And that’s no pipe dream.This article was written in cooperation with the Jewish Agency.