One stormy winter night, the phone in Shanti House rang. Mariuma Ben-Yosef, founder and director of the Tel Aviv home for at-risk children answered, but struggled to hear the voice on the other end. Finally, she heard a woman speaking very softly.
"I'm telephoning from a bus," the woman said. "I don't want him to hear, but there's a young boy sitting in the back of the bus. It's very cold, and he's wearing just a summer shirt. He's been crying for a long time. He looks like a nice boy, and I don't know what to do."
"I know you look after children," the woman continued. "Can you help him?"
Ben-Yosef gave the woman instructions: Approach the boy, talk to him, see if he would accept help. The caller did as she was told, and finally the boy settled down enough to talk. He'd run away from home, he said.
"I can't live there anymore," he sobbed. "All that shouting - I had to get away."
The woman told him about Shanti House - no questions, just a warm, safe place to sleep - and he jumped at the chance. It was midnight when the boy arrived at Shanti House, soaking wet and exhausted. He was given dry pajamas and a warm bed.
The next morning, Ben-Yosef saw the boy was still wearing the summer shirt. "Do you need anything?" she asked.
"No," he insisted. "Everything's fine."
But outside, it was still cold and blustery. They talked, and finally the boy admitted he didn't have any other clothes. He had nothing but what he was wearing.
"I quickly had some warm clothes brought to him," Ben-Yosef said. "It reminded me again how many times we say, 'Everything's okay,' when actually there's a huge hole there. We're constantly making an effort to cover it up."
Seeing holes and finding a way to fill them is part of Ben-Yosef's mission.
Some holes are much bigger than others. Several years ago, Ben-Yosef discovered a huge gaping hole in the fabric of Israeli society, one that was damaging Israel's ability to care for all at-risk children in the South. The problem was, all five of Israel's existing youth facilities were located in the center and northern part of the country. None at all were in the south. The hole was crying out to be filled.
"Shanti House in Tel Aviv has been running for 25 years," she says. "We primarily worked with children from the center of the country. But in Israel's south there are 120,000 children between the ages of 14 and 21, and over 28,000 of them are considered to be at high risk. Those children had nowhere at all to go," she said, adding, "we decided to do something about it."
Ben-Yosef's idea blossomed, and on November 23, a gala ceremony took place. The new Desert Shanti Village officially opened its doors. With financing from the Rashi Foundation and built on land owned by the Ramat Negev Local Council, Desert Shanti came into being in the heart of the Negev, about 60 km south of Beersheba, just off Route 40, Israel's main north-south highway.
DESERT SHANTI Village covers an area of 540 dunams, 150 of which are devoted to buildings, with the remainder allocated to agriculture and animal pastures. Desert Shanti is designed to operate 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, offering a welcoming home and supportive framework for more than a thousand young people a year.
The facility differs from Tel Aviv's Shanti House in that it's a whole village, and it features a therapeutic farm, where youngsters can gain experience and growth through working the land and tending to animals. Another special adjunct is a large guest house where 10,000 high school pupils a year will come for drug, alcohol and violence prevention workshops.
The striking architecture and dramatic colors serve a purpose, Ben-Yosef says.
"It was important to make the village very colorful. We definitely did not want plain white walls, the sterile kind of thing you'd see in a hospital or boarding school. Who wants that?" she says.
"We had to build something dramatic, a unique place that would be especially attractive so that the kids we want to serve would want to come," Ben-Yosef continues. "The South is different. When kids in the center of the country run away, they go to Tel Aviv. But when you're in the South, in the middle of the Negev, you can't run away to coffee houses, films or pubs like you can in the city. We had to devise something very special, something ecological and close to nature. We had to make it colorful and inviting so children would want to live here."
What kind of child qualifies as "at-risk?"
"Generally speaking, Israel's endangered children come from all levels of society, with no differentiation in religion, race, sex or country of origin," Ben-Yosef says. "Individually, they may have been abused physically, sexually or verbally. They may be orphans or simply neglected by their parents. For whatever reason, they've dropped out of formal therapy."
"The Shanti houses are open to all of these types of children, except for drug addicts, alcoholics, sex offenders and the mentally ill," she explains. "Other treatment facilities are available to handle those cases."
In the South, at-risk children have a few additional characteristics, she says.
"Many new immigrants from Ethiopia and the FSU countries live in the South," she says. "The problem is, when those groups made aliya, no one paid much attention to the children, especially the teenagers. They go through a very different absorption process, one that's often very stressful."
"In many Ethiopian families, the parents are strict, adhering to old-world standards," Ben-Yosef continues. "The children find themselves faced with a huge cultural adjustment, trying to bridge the chasm between life as it was in Ethiopia, as their parents remember it, and life here, as it's lived by the other Israeli children they see. Those problems are compounded by the economic problems many new immigrants encounter."
"Whole families may be in trouble," she says. "Parents have so many problems of their own, they don't pay attention to all the problems that confront their children. Sometimes it happens that the parents divorce or move away and there's no place for the children, especially the older ones."
"We're the only facility that's open to young people up to 21 years of age. Many Ethiopian and FSU young people may be 18 years old, but they're still not going into the army and they don't have families. There's simply no place for them to live," she says.
Not everyone who comes to Desert Shanti becomes a full time resident. "Some who come will stay just for a day or a few days. After discussions with their parents or other caretakers, they may be able to return home or to whatever other facility they came from," Ben-Yosef says.
"Other newcomers will come to stay a week or more, until a permanent place for them can be found, like the boy who was crying on the bus. He came to us, so he didn't have to sleep on the street, with all the dangers inherent that holds, falling prey to sexual abuse, violence, drugs or alcohol. Still others who come will stay for long periods of time, a year to several years. Desert Shanti will be their permanent home - they have nowhere else to go, and no other institution will accept them," she says.
Desert Shanti sees itself as a base from which to live, study, work and dream. "Children who live in the village will either be going to school or they'll be working," Ben-Yosef says. "Those of school age will go to whatever educational institution suits them best, whether it's in Beersheba, in Mitzpe Ramon or someplace else. We'll help them find the right place, just as we'll help find work for those who want a job. Our daily structure is that in the mornings, they will be going to school, then in the afternoons and early evening, they'll be engaging in projects in the village, working with the land or with animals, engaging in art, music or dance or whatever else interests them."
"We have strict hours," she says. "They'll be up at 7:00 a.m. and are expected to be home, in bed, by 11:00 p.m."
Residents of Desert Shanti will be sent from a variety of places. "Some will be referred by Children's Court, some by the welfare department or the police, and some will come by themselves, right off the street. We'd never turn our back on a child who says he wants help."
That said, not every child will be allowed to stay. "We have rules," Ben-Yosef says. "No drugs are allowed, and no alcohol. We have both boys and girls, but they have to respect the rules of separation. They also have to choose two therapeutic activities they want to participate in, and they have regularly assigned chores, like helping keep the place clean."
"What do we do if we have a chronic abuser of these rules? We give them a few chances, but we know this much: We can't help someone who doesn't want help. They have to be ready. We don't try to convince someone to get help - but we're here if they want it," she insists.
One of the biggest obstacles to building and running a village of this size in the Negev is transportation. Since the residents will be going to school or working elsewhere, how will they get to and from the village?
"That's an issue," Ben-Yosef admits. "A big issue. But now that the big military base here in the Negev is up and running, that helps. Some 15,000 soldiers will be based here, and Highway Six will be extended. That'll come very close to us, and that will help. But transportation is an issue, that's for sure."
A month before Desert Shanti opened, a contingent of residents of Shanti House in Tel Aviv arrived to help get the place ready.
"It's very emotional to see it," Ben-Yosef says. "The Tel Aviv kids worked day and night to make Desert Shanti beautiful for the new kids who will be coming to live here. It's kids helping kids - that's the way it's supposed to be."
As soon as the official opening ceremonies are over, the first residents of the village will be welcomed. "We'll start with ten, and then gradually work our way up to 50," Ben-Yosef says.
Opportunities for employment and volunteer work will follow. "We'll start with about ten employees and work our way up to 50 to 70. Volunteers will help with the cooking, teaching computers and tutoring, as well as helping the residents find work, and in helping tend the animals, the gardens, trees and flowers. We'll be looking for volunteers to do many things."
Desert Shanti's graduates will always be a part of the Desert Shanti family. "Like any family, they'll always be part of Desert Shanti," Ben-Yosef says. "They're welcome to come back any time they feel the need. We'll always be happy to have them come home for Shabbat, holidays and other events."
"What really makes Desert Shanti unique is that when a child comes here - to this gorgeous, very unique place in the Negev - he can tell at first glance that he's special. This bright, colorful, interesting place was built for one purpose only: To honor him and children like him. He or she will see this new home, and they'll know they aren't victims anymore. Now they are welcomed into a home where they're loved and honored just for being alive," she says. "Then we'll set about helping them find their dream and setting them all on the road to achieve it."
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