“It’s the little things that make the difference,” says Naftali Naftalayev. Naftali, 18, grew up in a tough neighborhood in the western Negev town of Sderot, where drugs, crime, and violence are rampant. Sderot is a low-income community where the poverty rate stands at 25%, and the unemployment rate of 13.5% is higher than the national average. Youth who come from socio-economically disadvantaged homes are considered high-risk. Yet, Naftali stayed out of trouble, graduated high school, studied at a military preparatory academy (Mechina), and recently joined the Israel Defense Forces, where he is in training to be a paramedic.
The ‘little things’ that made the difference for Naftali are found in Meir Panim’s Neighborhood Youth Center in Sderot, where Naftali spent most afternoons and evenings doing homework, engaging in activities, participating in discussions, and learning about life. Naftali began attending the Youth Center before seventh grade together with his friends, and by the time he reached high school, the Youth Center had between 80 and 90 members, with a steady attendance of between 30 and 40 teens each day. Naftali was an active member of the Youth Center for seven years. Naftali attended programs at the Neighborhood Youth Center during the school year and every summer.
Meir Panim’s Neighborhood Youth Center offers a “safe haven” – a home away from home where, in partnership with caring staff and peer-to-peer mentoring, young people can learn to lead healthy and productive lives as caring individuals and community members. Here teenagers gain clarity, develop their potential and work toward their personal, academic, and professional goals. This comfortable space also allows youth to enjoy recreational facilities and to spend meaningful time with friends, enabling them to live as normal lives as possible under abnormal circumstances.
“The staff helped me with whatever I needed in the Youth Center,” says Naftali. “We had computer classes and art lessons and discussed current affairs.” Discussions about current affairs in Israel, he says, were particularly important. “In the Youth Center, twice a week, we had conversations about Israeli society. For kids living in Sderot who don’t see the outside world, when you speak about what is happening in the world, something develops within you. It stimulated me to want to learn more and to continue learning.”
Many of the counselors in the Youth Center were students in various Mechina programs in Israel, which inspired Naftali to join a Mechina after high school. Naftali attended Nofei Prat, a ten-month pre-military leadership academy in the Judean Desert. The program is part of Ein Prat, a prestigious organization whose goal is to build leadership and Jewish identity in youth in Israel.
“If there is something for which I need to thank Meir Panim, it is for the support that they gave me.” When Naftali was a child, his parents warned him to avoid crime, drugs, alcohol, and violence. Naftali began to look for answers, and he says, the Youth Center in Sderot – with its wide range of activities – provided the answers to his questions – enabling him to spend his time productively and planning for his future.
Naftali entered the army just a few short weeks ago, and while he says it is difficult, he finds it exciting and enjoyable. He takes his responsibilities seriously and wants everyone in his paramedic course to complete the course. “Even if one student fails, that means that the rest of us are not good enough. If everyone thinks about only what he will take, and not what he can give, we will not get very far.”
Three years from now, when his army service comes to an end, Naftali is considering studying informal education and wants to return to Sderot. “I want to leave Sderot, learn things, and then return,” says Naftali. “Just as Meir Panim did for me – they came and brought me things that I didn’t have near me. They invested in me, and I want to go back and give back to them. If I do good for society, it will come back and help me.”
During his Mechina service, Naftali would frequently walk past Meir Panim’s large Restaurant-Style Soup Kitchen near the Central Bus Station. “Whenever I saw Meir Panim in Jerusalem, I looked at it in admiration, for all of the work that they do. I don’t know what would have happened to me without Meir Panim,” says Naftali. Smiling, he adds, “Please say ‘Thank you, Thank you,’ from me in big letters!”