Kalman Samuels, director of the Jerusalem-based Shalva center for children with special needs, is still in shock that the organization he founded with his wife 17 years ago is about to break ground on a $28 million facility in the heart of the country's capital. The new center, which is scheduled to be complete in 2010, will be the largest of its kind in the Middle East and will be able to treat upwards of 1,000 children with disabilities.
"I never believed we would reach this point," Samuels told The Jerusalem Post in an interview Monday, one day ahead of the groundbreaking ceremony that has brought more than 50 international donors to Israel this week to show their support and will include a musical performance by acclaimed Israeli artist David D'Or. "I was a regular father to six children and worked in computers when we started. It was a real 'ma and pa' organization that has just not stopped growing."
The inspiration for the organization, which provides a variety of therapy programs and support services for severely mentally and physically disabled children and their families, came after Samuels's own son, Yossi, received a routine DPT vaccination when he was 11 months old that rendered him blind, deaf and acutely hyperactive.
"[My wife] Malky made a promise that if God helped us with our child then we would help others," recalled Samuels.
While many people, including medical professionals, tried to convince the family to institutionalize their son, who is 31 years old today, Malky Samuels could not bear to send him away. Instead, she decided to seek treatment that would enable him to live at home.
In 1988, Yossi, who had until then been unable to communicate with the world around him, had a sudden breakthrough that allowed him to respond in a limited way to other people. Two years later, Malky Samuels decided it was time to fulfill her promise and the couple set out together to find the seed money for Shalva.
"We started in a simple duplex in Har Nof with only two therapists with the aim of providing a break for parents who wanted to keep their children living at home but were struggling with the heavy demands," said Samuels, who received the initial financial support from Gordon and Leslie Diamond, old friends from his native Canada.
"Within five years, however, we did not have enough space," he continued, adding that the couple had not realized how many others shared their predicament and were searching for alternative options to live-in homes.
In 1994, the organization moved into its present facility in Har Nof, but the number of people who came looking for services and support kept increasing, leading Samuels to believe that an important expansion was needed.
According to a recent study by the Myers-JDC Brookdale Institute, approximately seven percent of children born in Israel today can be classified as having some form of special needs. In Jerusalem alone, the study revealed that almost two-thirds of challenged children who require special services are unable to find them.
Shalva's current center serves 450 babies, children and youth, along with thousands of family members, gives them hands-on training, peer and professional counseling and even allows the children to sleep over one day a week and on occasional weekends.
"We have hundreds of children on our waiting list," said Samuels. "The requests we receive for our services are constant."
"I know several families who have been turned away by Shalva because they simply have no more space," commented Malka Lilienthal, whose 15-year-old son, Roee, has been treated by Shalva for the past eight years. "They try to help them by telling them to come in for one or two days a week of therapy but that is usually not enough. Shalva's services are not just for one day, one week or even one year, they are for an extended period of time."
Lilienthal said that doctors and other professionals have tried over the years to convince her to put her son, who suffers from tuberous sclerosis, into an institution, but she has resisted, preferring to rely on Shalva's daily assistance.
"Roee is non-verbal and is at the level of a child aged three or four," she explained, adding, "When a two-year-old has a temper tantrum you can just pick him up and carry him away, but try picking up a 15-year-old, it is impossible.
"People always look at me and say 'well done' that you keep him at home even though it is so hard," continued Lilienthal. "But really, he goes to Shalva every day after school and they look after him until he returns home at 6 p.m. We even managed to go abroad on vacation for a few days this summer while Roee was at Shalva's sleep-away camp."
Samuels said he was hopeful that the new center would be able to accommodate many more families like the Lilienthals. With two therapeutic swimming pools, a sports hall and 10 floors specially equipped for the children's therapeutic needs, Shalva will eventually be able to take in approximately 1,500 babies and provide 13,500 sleepovers annually, he estimates.
Asked if he feels proud that he has achieved so much for other families with disabled children, Samuels responded: "When something happens to you like what happened to us, your original dreams for your children are over. However, there is always a different set of dreams you can follow, and this was ours."