‘Raised with lots of love and happiness’

‘People don’t need to be afraid of the unknown – children with Down Syndrome are, in the end, just regular people’

May 15, 2019 17:33
‘Raised with lots of love and happiness’

HILDA AND Yechezkel Skolnik with their three boys: Tal, Omer and Sagi.. (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI)

‘Many times people have told me I shouldn’t judge people who abandon their babies just because they were born with Down syndrome,” says Hilda Skolnik, who, along with her husband, Yechezkel, adopted three children with Down syndrome.

“I’m very sorry, but I do judge them, and it makes me very angry. They have no idea what they’ve given up. And besides – these children are their flesh and blood! They think to themselves, ‘How will these children grow up? They’ll never get married. What will I do then?’

“I don’t have that mind-set at all. I think about their personalities and their kindheartedness. How can you focus on what’s going to happen 30 years from now? Why wouldn’t you want to give your newborn baby the best life possible?”

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder caused by the presence of a third copy of chromosome 21, which is why it’s sometimes referred to as trisomy 21, and why World Down Syndrome Day takes place on March 21 every year.

The Skolniks’ story is definitely unique, but they themselves don’t see it that way, and are always surprised when people are so impressed with them.

They live in Mevo Dotan, which is situated in northwestern Samaria. Hilda, 69, is a medical assistant in a kindergarten who made aliyah from Argentina in 1962. Yechezkel, 72, is a bus driver who made aliyah the year after Hilda. They met in Israel and are parents to seven children: four of whom are their biological children – one was killed during his military service – and three boys who have Down syndrome, whom they adopted as babies: Tal, 26, Omer, 24, and Sagi, 23.

“Our adopted children are extremely involved in helping to raise our grandchildren,” says Hilda with a smile.

What made you consider adopting in the first place?

“I was working in a school for special-needs children, and the social worker there asked me one day if I’d be interested in adopting a baby with Down syndrome. I told her that I’d talk it over with my husband. By then, my youngest child was already 10. The baby in question had been abandoned at birth, and in Argentinean culture, that just doesn’t happen, so my husband and I both agreed to adopt him.”

“How could someone abandon their own child?” adds Yechezkel. “That’s just not natural. Maybe he was cold.”

“Tal was the first baby we adopted,” continues Hilda. “He’d been abandoned in the hospital, and we heard about him when he was three months old. Our daughter was also involved while the adoption process was taking place. She would go visit Tal in the hospital, and sometimes he would be naked and hungry, so she would help out since the nurses were extremely busy. We bought him clothes and tried to speed up the red tape so we could bring Tal home already. But it took three months. We raised him with lots of love and happiness.”

Weren’t you worried about what raising a Down syndrome child would be like?

“So many people ask me that. I guess I’m just very self-confident about my parenting skills, because it never even crossed my mind. I knew we’d be just fine. I’d been working with special-needs children for a while already, and I loved the idea of raising this person who had no mother or father to care for him. It absolutely killed me knowing that there were people who could abandon their own baby.

“It wasn’t easy, though,” continues Hilda. “He couldn’t even raise his head at first – it would just flop around. We had to teach him everything – to strengthen his muscles and to eat. Today, he’s physically much stronger than I am. Very early on, he was toilet-trained – lots of kids with Down syndrome stay in diapers until they’re six or seven. Yesterday I was looking at our family picture albums, and you can see how much love our biological kids gave to our adopted kids. They treated them like regular siblings. Till this day they all feel like we’re a regular family.”

“Tal began walking at age three or four,” Yechezkel continues. “We love all of them with all our hearts and have never left their sides. Do you know what it feels like to receive love from these children? We treat them the same way we do our biological children. In our minds, they have wants and needs just like everyone else. And they have such pure souls.”

When Tal was two years old, the couple received a call from the social worker.

“They asked if we wanted another delicious baby,” Hilda recalls. “We were driving and Yechezkel answered her, ‘Yes, we’ll be right there.’ I’ve never complained about something being too hard. I do everything out of love.”

And yet you must be a very special person, to have such determination and endless strength to do what you’ve done.
“People these days are always looking for the easy way out and complaining about their lives,” Hilda explains. “We’re from the previous generation. We’re not spoiled. I think I take after my grandmother. She took care of orphans who’d survived the ghetto. And I’m lucky that my husband feels the same way as I do. He loves them with all his heart.”

“We don’t feel like we’re being brave,” Yechezkel asserts. “People make a big deal about it, but we feel like it’s a very natural thing to do. They think raising a Down syndrome child is incredibly hard, but it’s just like raising any other child. In fact, they’re much easier and nicer than some kids. And our children give us back unconditional love, without being asked for it. The only thing that’s important to them is that we love them.”

The year after they adopted Omer, their second Down syndrome baby, the Skolnik family suffered a great tragedy. Their son, Ophir, was killed in 1994 during his IDF service when he was just 18. Two months later, they adopted Sagi. “Again, the social worker called me and told me that another family had abandoned a Down syndrome baby. I told her, ‘We’ll take him.’”

But you were deep in mourning for Ophir. How did you find the strength to adopt another child?

“I don’t know,” responds Hilda. “In some respects, having Sagi gave me the energy to wake up in the morning and move on with my life, and so I feel like I owe him so much. Everyone in our family takes care of each other; that’s how we are.”

The Skolniks don’t talk much about all the hardships involved with raising three children with Down syndrome.

“When children receive good food, love, a roof over their heads and decent parents and siblings, what could be bad?” Hilda wonders aloud. “Granted, we had to spend time in hospitals and doctor visits, but everything worked out in the end.”

Now the three boys are all grown up. Tal and Omer live in a group home in Hadera, and Sagi lives with some friends in Haifa in an apartment run by an organization that assists people with special needs.

“They’re semiautonomous,” says Hilda. “They’ll always need to live in some sort of framework, since sometimes they don’t realize that they’re putting themselves in danger.

“I make an effort to visit them once or twice a week, and they come visit us at the house, too. They’re like all kids that grow up – at 18 they go to the army and then afterwards move in with their girlfriend. That’s great.

“My kids have a deluxe version of Down syndrome, which you can see by the way they dress and their behavior. I’ve really invested my heart and soul in these boys, as if I gave birth to them. I don’t feel like I did anything heroic, since I just feel like they’re my real children. I took each one of them home from the hospital and changed their diapers. I bought them everything they ever needed. They’ve given us so much more than we’ve given them. They are proof of my success.”

Was it hard transitioning to an empty nest when they left home?

“Well, they’ve been living outside of the house for a few years already, and it’s very difficult for me. But they’re busy with all their trips, activities and friends.”

Every year, about 150 babies are born with Down syndrome in Israel. According to TisMotek, in 2018, 10 babies were abandoned in hospitals, which is a reduction from previous years. This is due partly to an increase in awareness and the hard work carried out by the From Parent to Parent Project run by TisMotek, which helps parents of special-needs babies accept the shocking news and learn to handle the situation better.

“People don’t need to be afraid of the unknown,” asserts Hilda. “Children with Down syndrome are, in the end, just regular people. Yesterday, for example, one of my adopted children opened up his own Facebook page all by himself. Pretty amazing, right? He has his own cellphone, which he uses to call me all the time. If we had other devices that were helpful, who knows how far he would have come?”

“People who abandon their babies are really losing out,” muses Yechezkel. “Sometimes a doctor even encourages parents to leave their baby in the hospital. I don’t understand how people could even abandon a dog, let alone a human being. We took in three babies who had been abandoned. That shouldn’t happen to anyone. Everyone needs to take responsibility for their children.”

Translated by Hannah Hochner.

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