Serving a purpose

A small vocational project turns around the lives of Bat Yam girls.

Nofar 224.88 (photo credit: Ehud Zion Waldoks )
Nofar 224.88
(photo credit: Ehud Zion Waldoks )
People began trickling into Bat Yam's cultural center an hour before the opening of a new play last week. They naturally gravitated toward the Elite coffee bar at the back of the lobby. Behind the bar, two teenage girls provided prompt and courteous service with a smile. They asked the patrons politely what they wanted and served them coffee and cake. Wearing Elite T-shirts, they were indistinguishable from the thousands of other youngsters who work as waitresses all around the country. "[If I wasn't here], I'd be wandering the streets," Nofar (not her real name) told The Jerusalem Post. Her friend Yafit (also not her real name) chimed in, "I'd be sleeping all the time, not doing anything." "I come here because this is my home. [The other girls] are like a family to me, not like other jobs where you just take the money and go," Nofar explained to the Post. While the coffee shop is an ordinary coffee shop, it is part of a far-from-ordinary joint project of Metzila, an educational business initiative of the Public Security Ministry, Elite Coffee and the city of Bat Yam. The aim is to give skills and confidence to alienated teenagers who have dropped out of school and who otherwise spend much of their time roaming the streets with their friends. The project is quite small and is limited to girls in their mid-to-late teens. Sixteen girls have gone through it and 10 are currently involved, Idit Gindi, Metzila coordinator and head of the Bat Yam municipal authority to prevent violence, drugs and alcohol abuse, told the Post. But its success rate is very high. Out of 26 girls, only one has dropped out of the program and disappeared. Many have gone back to school and have been drafted into the IDF or national service, something that would have been inconceivable for these girls just a short while ago. The project began two years ago, but took off when Gindi got involved about a half-year later. Elite Business Coordinator Rachel Mizrahi comes to every shift to provide hands-on support and training. The girls learn how to operate all the machines, how to talk to customers and how to handle the large crowds that descend upon the bar during intermission. They also learn how to do all the behind-the-scenes work, like taking inventory, setting up the bar and reordering supplies. In addition to the bar, the girls also run a nearby academic college's cafeteria and they cater private events. The other venues were added because the girls needed more working hours, Gindi said. They work every day of the week after school. The girls also get to see the performances at the cultural center for free. Because the program is so small, each girl gets plenty of individual attention. The project can accommodate up to 12 girls at a time, according to Gindi. "With the experience they gain here, they have a great resume to get jobs later - managing a shift or whatever they want," she added. One graduate became a mechanic in the air force and another is a designer. "I like the whole idea," Yafit said. "It was made for us. We are all one group who came for the same reason - to get off the streets. My mother likes it because we are learning life skills," she added. What is also remarkable about the project is how fast the kids turn around. Nofar began a year-and-a-half ago. "When I first got here, I would just stand there with my arms crossed. Little by little, I started taking part. "I've learned how to control myself. To be independent and to accept life with more equanimity," she said after some thought. Mizrahi noted that when Nofar first began at the coffee bar, she was sullen and withdrawn. "She would say hello at the beginning of the shift, goodbye at the end, and that was it. She would always wear her hair down over her face. I only ever saw one eye," Mizrahi said with a catch in her voice. During the interview, Nofar's hair was pulled back and she met this reporter's eye squarely when answering questions, though she was obviously comforted by the presence of Mizrahi and Gindi. Yafit has gone back to school and has already taken some of her matriculation exams after just 10 months. She is part of the Education Ministry's Hila Project, which helps former dropouts make up what they have missed. "When I saw the volunteers from Elem [which operates mobile centers to engage alienated kids] recently, they were shocked. 'You've turned into a totally different person,' they told me. "Suddenly, I started to work, to study, and I had a little money in my pocket," the 11th grader said. Yafit was referred to this program by Elem after visiting its mobile centers over the course of two years. Mizrahi used to run a chain of photo development stores and volunteer in her spare time. When she felt she had fulfilled her potential as the owner of a small business, she looked around for something new. "This was the perfect mix for me. I became interested in helping in general because I have a kid in special education. "I give them warmth and love and lots of hugs. A lot of them come from difficult homes, some single-parent homes or where the parents both have to work to provide for the family and don't have enough time for hugs and to give their children attention," she said. Metzila runs educational business initiatives like these all over the country, teaching youth useful skills such as gardening, painting, office work, food services and renovations. It operates in 79 cities and youth villages in conjunction with local municipalities and reach about 11,000 kids. It also runs other initiatives - such as parents' seminars. "A lot of resources are being invested in a lot of different organizations, and without overall organization, the parts are often not greater than the whole. Resources are wasted. We provide that overall supervision," Metzila head Yaakov Goaz told the Post Thursday. "Alienated youth as well as their parents, teachers and youth group councilors are also our target audience," he said. Metzila works with immigrants, too, especially from Ethiopia and the FSU. He explained that they were situated within the Public Security Ministry because they worked to prevent future crime. Good prevention relies on education, he said, and citizens will feel safer with better prevention. Rescued from purposelessness, Yafit has set herself specific goals. "I'm finishing school and then enlisting in the army. With my wages, I'm taking driving lessons and I'm going to buy a car," she said. Mizrahi and Gindi are still preparing Nofar, 19, for enlistment, and she is gradually coming around. "I don't want to enlist because then I'd have to leave here," she noted half seriously, half facetiously. "I'm also saving money for guitar lessons and then afterward for driving lessons."