Connecting Israel's special needs children with special opportunities

Finding a babysitter willing to handle a special needs child was daunting, but Avner realized she wasn’t alone.

NOMI AVNER with her son Amichai (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
NOMI AVNER with her son Amichai
A mother of a special-needs son has changed the way families function despite the extra needs of one member. Eight-and-a-half years ago, Amichai was born to the Avner family in Psagot, a settlement outside Jerusalem. From the beginning, he needed help with everything. He could not walk or feed himself or communicate because of a syndrome that prevented his brain from developing normally and which caused delays in cognitive and physical ability.
His mother, Nomi Avner, found that getting time away was difficult, not only because there were two other children in the house, but also because it was hard to find a babysitter who could handle the needs of Amichai, who is wheelchair-bound.
“It’s very hard to find a babysitter,” Avner said. “You can’t just leave [your children] with just anyone,” all the more so when a special-needs child is involved.
Finding a babysitter willing to handle a special needs child was daunting, but Avner realized she wasn’t alone. Parents of children with autism and with all sorts of medical and behavioral needs also faced the same problem.
“You need someone who isn’t afraid,” she said.
Avner, who studied special education, started working with fellow students who needed to earn some money and had some of the skills to work with a special-needs child. She contacted students from the David Yellin College of Education in Jerusalem to find babysitters not only for her family, but for other families she knew of who needed a little time off.
From there, Avner opened a Facebook group for families in need of special babysitters. In the past year, 20 WhatsApp groups from regions all over the country have opened under Avner’s supervision, in order to connect families with special-education students who can babysit.
“So it’s a win-win situation. They have a good babysitter they can rely on and feel comfortable with. And for special-education students, it’s a chance for them to make money and a chance for them to go into the homes of these children,” Avner said.
“One day they’re going to be the teachers,” she said. “A student comes into a class, and a lot of times with special needs there’s a lot of staff around each student, and everybody has something to say about how the parents are good or are not good. Do they use their money in the right way and do they do their best? And they have a chance to see there’s a family behind him – parents who need support, siblings who also go through something, and also the grandparents – a whole circle of life around this child. And it’s important for the teachers of the future to see that it’s like that. So I see it as a win-win situation.”
Most WhatsApp groups are near capacity, meaning they have hit the limit of 257 members which the messaging application provides. Groups for families in Jerusalem and in the center of the country are full and secondary groups for those areas have opened.
FOR SOME areas like Binyamin where Avner is based, there are around 100 members in the WhatsApp group. Still, Avner said, having the groups to connect families with babysitters is worth the effort it takes to organize them.
“What’s the most important thing to me is that the parents have a chance to go out and do things on their own sometimes,” Avner said. “And kids with special needs don’t leave the house, and it’s easier to say not to go out, or one parent goes and the other stays home. And a family has to be a family, and the kid is part of the family. But not everything has to go around this special-needs child.”
Avner said it is better to leave the child at home with a caregiver if logistics are too difficult, or bring a babysitter for some occasions, allowing the whole family to be together without too much stress.
As for Avner, who has four children, working and maintaining the project is time-consuming. Students from the special education track at David Yellin maintain the WhatsApp groups and connect with families, something Avner said has been a great help to her.
“I try to be very realistic and listen to myself. I work but I don’t work full-time. We want to open more groups and every group needs someone to manage it. Also, students, they also have other things in mind and other things to worry about,” she said.
“But I do like to do it in-between things, and it gives me a good feeling when I can help parents out. Parents read the articles and say, ‘Wow, we’ve never gone out before,’ and it’s a chance they didn’t get before... and that gives me the strength.”
Avner hopes a hotline can be established to help link families with special-education service providers even faster and more efficiently than the WhatsApp groups. It would also be useful to have such a hotline, she said, if parents have questions or need guidance with their children. She works currently with Aleh B'shvilchem, a hotline service.
Keeping the groups going is also a challenge Avner will face as students graduate. Still, she has more ideas to advance.
“I had a lot of parents call me about children who have more medical needs, they’re more of a problem to leave with anybody,” Avner said. “So you need to do hadracha [instruction] for a few hours for students who will work with medical needs.” Avner also hopes to connect nurses and special education students who have medical training with families in which there are children with medical needs.
Avner’s work has stirred some media attention recently, and she has been interviewed by several news outlets.
“The only reason I do it is if I can help somebody; I’m not looking for the fame,” she said.
As for her own family, life has seemed to improve as a result of her innovative work.
“Everybody understands in our family that Amichai is part of the family, and he’s not the only one,” she said. “A couple of years ago, we went on a trip in the Old City that my girls wanted to do, just with them, and we could make the time because we could find a babysitter.”
With the help of babysitters, the Avners try to have family time more often, she said. This way, the other children don't feel neglected and can truly love and appreciate Amichai as a brother, she said.