Beit Darna - A safe home for extreme at-risk youth

Darna's entire purpose is to rehabilitate extreme at-risk youth and help them integrate them into society.

BEIT DARNA is working hard to change the bleak future for young Jewish males (photo credit: DARNA)
BEIT DARNA is working hard to change the bleak future for young Jewish males
(photo credit: DARNA)
There are many ways young lives can veer off-course. Growing up in an atmosphere of poverty, neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse can lead to behavioral challenges such as drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, petty theft, learning disabilities and emotional detachment.
In the worst cases, these adolescents are defined as extreme at-risk youth. Without rehabilitative intervention, these young people face a future entangled with the criminal justice system. Some will die tragically young.
The Darna Safe Home for At-Risk Youth is working hard to change the bleak future for young Jewish males aged 14 to 18.
Darna, which means “home” in Arabic, aims to be exactly that. It’s a residential facility located in Emek Hefer in central Israel. Their entire purpose is to rehabilitate extreme at-risk youth and help them integrate them into society.
LIFE AT Darna is all-encompassing. The staff, led by Tomer Buhadana and Udi Gelbard, is driven by their belief that the best chance they have of impacting the young people in their care is by reinforcing positive behaviors, emphasizing the strengths each child has and filling their days with constructive experiences and opportunities to give and receive kindness.
Their unconventional strategies are based on the theories of Positive Criminology and Strengths Approach.
DARNA YOUTH on a desert adventure. (Credit: Darna)
DARNA YOUTH on a desert adventure. (Credit: Darna)
Each resident of Darna is assessed by the team and an individualized rehabilitation program is created for him, with equal attention given to his educational/vocational needs and to his personal/behavioral needs. In each case, the goal is for the young man to experience success where he has faced failure in the past and to graduate with a teudat bagrut (matriculation diploma) or a suitable technical or vocational certification.
When they are not attending class, Darna offers youths a range of outdoor activities designed to help rebuild self-confidence and capacity for compassion.
A significant component of their personal development centers on a therapeutic horse farm. Using a system known as AAI, animal-assisted intervention, Darna youth learn to take care of horses and how to ride them. As their skills and behaviors improve, they are invited to participate in a project helping special-needs children learn to ride the horses.
Other healthy and productive outdoor activities include weekly bicycle rides, surfing and overnight field trips. Indoor workshops in ceramics, carpentry and the like, plus Twelve Step meetings for those struggling with various addictions, round out the Darna activity schedule.
IN LARGE measure, Darna is the outcome of Buhadana’s personal story. Raised in a dysfunctional family, he spent most of his youth in foster care. As a young adult, he was able to overcome his challenges and serve as an IDF commander. Today, he is an educator and a social entrepreneur, committed to helping young men whose first chapters in life have not been easy.
He is assisted by Gelbard who came from a background in finance. When the brokerage company of which he was the CEO was bought out, Gelbard was asked to stay on for five years. At the end of that time, though he was still relatively young, he craved a change.
Years earlier, he had a rewarding experience volunteering as a Big Brother. After 11 years together, his Little Brother was 18 and facing a bright future. Gelbard took on another young boy, this time one who attended a boarding school.
“I learned what boarding school is like from the child’s perspective,” he reported.
These life-enhancing experiences convinced him that he wanted to work with young people. He left the financial world and trained to be a math teacher. When Gelbard and Buhadana met, they decided to work together to create Darna.
UDI GELBARD (left) and Tomer Buhadana lead the staff. (Credi: Darna)
UDI GELBARD (left) and Tomer Buhadana lead the staff. (Credi: Darna)
“In our society, people are divided into tribes. These children are left without anyone taking care of them. They were born in the wrong circumstances, in the wrong environment. Like everyone else, they deserve a chance,” Gelbard explained about his motivation to work with the most challenging youth.
The students at Darna are referred by judges and social workers who know that they have little chance of succeeding academically and personally without intensive assistance.
“We get boys from all around the country,” Gelbard said. “These kids are the high end of the risk [spectrum]. Kids that don’t succeed with Darna will fail in life and become criminal. This is their last chance.”
The Darna process takes time.
“In order to make a real change in your behavior, you have to stay at least two years. We ask these kids to change their way of behavior. It is a big change and it takes time. It’s not an easy mission and it’s not a short mission,” he elaborated. “We try to make a real change, to change the kid’s way of thinking, to give them a new birth.”
There are frustrations for the staff as well.
“We spend a fortune on on-going training/education. It’s not easy for anyone on staff to survive. You come to work to do good for the kids and they don’t appreciate it. These kids don’t trust people. They don’t trust our staff in the beginning; it takes a lot of patience in at first. We have 25 people on staff for 24 kids. We have very tight supervision.”
DESPITE THE challenges, the staff is supremely dedicated.
“[The students] are in Darna because something went wrong in childhood that makes them behave differently from [other] children. When you hear the stories of what they dealt with, you feel misery for them and understand why they behave this way,” he related.
Tuvi Halbraich has been volunteering at Darna for over five years. Like Gelbard, she wanted to supplement her hi-tech career with “something that meant something to someone, not just money.”
She first heard Buhadana on television, speaking about his dream of creating Darna. He wanted the program to include training the youth to work with horses and then to use their knowledge of horses to help others.
Everything he said resonated for Halbraich.
“I rode horses at 14. I did therapeutic riding training. I have background with horses. I love the horses and I wanted to do something meaningful.”
She and Buhadana connected and she started by volunteering at a ranch with just three kids. Today, she volunteers 16 hours a week, coordinating all the animal-related activities associated with Darna, including a Starting Over, a sanctuary for animals who were abused and went through trauma.
Halbraich finds “developing a substantial relationship and a meaningful connection” to be the biggest challenge The other challenge is when one of the children goes through the process and they don’t finish.
TUVI HALBRAICH has been volunteering at Darna for over five years. (Credit: Darna)
TUVI HALBRAICH has been volunteering at Darna for over five years. (Credit: Darna)
“I’ve had to say goodbye prematurely because the kids decided to leave early. Darna has a lot of expectation and it’s hard for some people. It’s easier to go back to what you’re used to.”
Success at Darna is measured in small achievements.
“A kid saw the world as all dark and now sees good with the bad, success in school, getting a bagrut diploma, going to the army, reuniting with their families. These are the successes – to feel good about themselves and feel they can have a meaningful life and be good people, to not always be the kid who is in trouble. I’m in love with the kids. For me, it’s really happiness,” Halbraich concluded.
In July, Darna moved to a new 24-bed facility. They are currently conducting a campaign to raise NIS 400,000 to help ensure their future success.
“We all know how expensive it is to raise a baby. We are raising 24 children who require extensive financial investment to ensure their success,” appealed Buhadana and Gelbard.
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