As the summer sun continues to beat down on Jerusalem’s congested roadways, I am continually impressed with the runners who brave the crowds and sweltering heat day after day to get and stay in shape for the Jerusalem Marathon. True, the race is nearly eight months away. But as any marathoner will tell you, the key to training is starting early, staying consistent and building upon your accomplishments one stride at a time.
Here at ALEH’s residential facility in Jerusalem, we have used that same strategy to prepare our residents, children and young adults with severe complex disabilities, for the challenge of tackling the Jerusalem Marathon’s 800-meter “Community Track” – a small step for you and me but a giant developmental leap for individuals who cannot walk on their own.
For the past four years, police officers from Jerusalem’s Lev Habira station have spent much of their free time during the winter months training with our exceptional young men and women. As the officers walk back and forth beneath our office windows, helping our older residents along with walkers and actually wearing our younger residents in special harnesses, we are always overcome with emotion.
This weekly training ritual is a source of great encouragement to our specialized medical and educational staff members, who have dedicated their lives to providing quality disability care and promoting inclusion, because it shows them that their investment of time and effort – not to mention blood, sweat and tears – really does make a difference.
As ALEH Jerusalem celebrates its 20th anniversary, I am struck by the similarities between our facility’s slow but steady growth over two decades and the race preparations that I have witnessed over the past few years. In both cases, a dedicated team identified a challenge and dug deep to solve it, remaining consistent and resolute, and building upon even the smallest accomplishments to charge ever forward.
In 1988, Israel passed a law that focused on providing equal opportunities and experiences for all and creating integrated programming in educational settings. With the goal of promoting this ideal of equality in every aspect of life and creating a residence and treatment center that felt like a true home, ALEH, which had been founded a few years earlier by a group of dedicated parents, took this breakthrough and ran with it, utilizing this new legislation to pave the way for governmental participation, funding and support.
Initially, our centers were established with the goal of providing children and young adults with severe complex disabilities with quality care and intensive support to live full lives and perform daily actives such as eating, bathing, sitting and playing. But we realized that there was so much more that we could do for the disability community, and we could only get there if we properly educated the government decision makers and the communities in which we operated about inclusion and the importance of enhancing disability services.
By 2007, we had effectively made our case and worked with the Health Ministry to open a high-dependency hospital wing for children in need of advanced nursing care. Thanks to many other great partners who heeded our call, we were also able to offer rehabilitative services, special education, social opportunities and support for families.
But we didn’t stop there. Responding to the needs of the incoming children and their families, we developed a rehabilitative kindergarten and day care center, opened state-of-the-art special education classrooms and specialized therapy rooms, and created a lending library that provides parents and educators with developmental games for home use.
By remaining committed to our goals, our focus on “slow and steady” growth allowed us to continue enhancing the lives of amazing residents for 20 years.
Negativity has never weighed us down, and our dedication to the special children in our care has steered us clear of self-doubt and fatigue. Whenever we encountered rocky terrain, we adjusted to the challenge and kept moving forward. Whenever we were told that we couldn’t accomplish something, we redoubled our efforts and proved that we could.
Had we started out focused on sprinting, tackling only the immediate problems in front of us, I don’t believe we would have ever succeeded. We have thrived for so long because we have always been motivated by the much larger goal of true disability inclusion, the ultramarathon of social justice goals to be sure.
When we started building in central Jerusalem, the community was hesitant to say the least. But after dispelling their fears through education and interaction, we have changed the face of Jerusalem and Israel as a whole.
ALEH has become a neighborhood hotspot, and the halls ring with laughter and song every Sabbath and during all of the holidays. Volunteerism and corporate assistance have skyrocketed. More national service volunteers are shifting the focus of their university studies to special education and disability care than ever before. And our relationships with the management at restaurants, malls, schools, and office buildings has resulted in massive structural and cultural overhauls to ensure that all of their facilities are accessible to one and all.
We are so proud of what we have achieved and how far Israel has come, but it’s clear that we have not yet reached the finish line. To reach a goal of this magnitude, we will need to run as a team – all of us.
We are so thankful for the support of our incredible partners around the world, both those who have always run alongside us and those who have cheered us on from the side lines. But true inclusion and equality – of experience and opportunity – will only be within our reach when we all lace up, focus our energies on improving the lot of the disability community in earnest, and work together to build upon our shared accomplishments one stride at a time.
Let’s go, team. It’s time to pound the pavement.The author is director of ALEH Jerusalem and assistant director general of ALEH (www.aleh.org), Israel’s foremost network of state-of-the-art facilities for children with severe complex disabilities.