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Seeing a school bus leave on an annual trip with crowds of happy shouting children on board is always an enjoyable sight. But how do you feel when, after the bus has left, you see a group of children peering out from behind the school gate, left behind because their parents couldn't afford the cost of the trip?
This is a sight that the members of Willing Hands couldn't bear to see. They are trying as hard as they can to wipe it out - at least in the Netanya area. Run by a committee of eight ladies, Willing Hands, a group of Anglo-Saxon immigrants, raises money and distributes it among some of the hardest hit areas of poverty in their adopted home town.
Under the current leadership of Rochelle Baker, the group aims to help as many people and schools as possible. "We offer help usually to two different schools each year," explains Baker. "We visit a school in a run-down area, and discuss with the principal what we can do to help."
In one school, they provided the paint for a face-lift in the corridors and classrooms, which raised the spirits of all who work and study there. They also presented computers and six air-conditioning units essential to studies during the hot summer months. In another school they supplied the funds for after-school meals, supervision with homework and extracurricular activities (hugim) for 60 children for four hours daily. The result, explains Baker, is that the children do not return home hungry to an empty house or roam the streets until their parents return home from work.
At the beginning of the school year, parents are asked to pay a flat fee to a school to cover all extracurricular activities, including school trips. Halfway through the first semester, Baker and her team visit several schools to examine how many families have not been able to make the payment and whose children therefore stand a chance of being left behind when their friends go out - an experience that can haunt them. Willing Hands then covers the payment for these families.
Founded over 30 years ago, the organization has been helping relieve the financial hardships of people who fall between the bureaucratic cracks. The current committee (Freddi Poll, Barbara Bennett, Jacqui Wierba, Sandra Stein, Leila Kazar, Suzanne Amar and Belle Lerman) consists mostly of women hailing from Britain, but there are also ladies from the US, Ireland and Zimbabwe among the some 100 activists.
Baker, who was born in Manchester, England, came to Israel in 1981 with her husband and three children after many years of working for the 35s, a women's organization dedicated to helping Soviet refuseniks get to Israel. "The work we did to help them fulfill their dream and get to Israel definitely affected me and was instrumental in my decision to make aliya," says Baker.
Once settled in Netanya, she worked for both the AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) and the HOB (the British immigrants' organization). She became involved in Willing Hands about seven years ago, when a friend of hers who had been very active in the group passed away. "I was ready at that point to go back to an organization which helps feed the needy," says Baker, who decided that joining the group in her friend's place would be a fitting tribute.
For the past six years, she has been at the helm trying to find more creative ways to raise funds for Willing Hands' projects. The group is occasionally approached directly by families who hear about their work, but always refer the family first to the social services. For some families, just eating a hot meal every day is a luxury. Willing Hands works together with the municipal social services and provides vouchers for these families, which can be redeemed at a local grocer for a basket of non-perishable food items and baby formula where necessary.
It never gives money directly, as too often this gets diverted for use other than that intended. Instead, it buys something, provides a voucher or pays a bill. "I was shocked to see how rarely the same person's name appeared on these vouchers," says Baker. "This showed that the poverty was so great that each family could only receive an occasional voucher, even though they really need it regularly."
The knowledge of all the poverty in this beautiful seaside resort keeps the ladies of Willing Hands busy thinking up new ways of raising funds and stretching every shekel to help the needy. All the members have grown up with the essence of volunteering and helping others ingrained in them. In their home towns abroad, they were members of synagogue ladies' guilds, hesed committees, Emunah or WIZO groups, and now that they are happily retired in Israel, their desire to help others burns even greater.
They work in quiet anonymity, preferring to give through a third party and rarely meet the recipients of their assistance. "It's enough for us just to know that 100 underprivileged children enjoyed themselves tremendously at summer day camps this year," says Baker, noting that these are children who have never known the fun of a day at the zoo, pool or park.
Willing Hands also helps the elderly, especially in winter when they need extra blankets and heaters, and many are in danger of having their electricity cut off due to non-payment of bills. This year, Willing Hands allotted NIS 10,000 to covering electricity bills.
Where does all the money come from to supply so many urgent needs within the community? Baker says that most of the funding is generated by their twice-yearly appeal letters that go out before Rosh Hashana and Pessah to some 100 loyal donors abroad. The donors respond generously and sympathetically, she explains, because they know that every penny goes directly to the people who need it, with no overhead for staff or office expenses.
Throughout the year, the group also holds meetings with guest speakers to raise more funds, and if there is a specific project for which it needs a larger amount of money than its budget allows, there are some generous benefactors in Israel who will always give with an open heart, says Baker.
Many immigrants retire to Netanya after a long, active business and communal life, looking forward to taking a back seat and relaxing with the grandchildren. But they often find that the deeply imbedded Jewish trait of hesed doesn't let up just because they've officially retired. Fortunately for the poorer population of Netanya, a group of quiet, hardworking ladies is out there looking after their best interests and giving a willing and helping hand where it's needed.
If you would like to contribute in any way to Willing Hands, please contact Rochelle Baker at (09) 865-2216.