SOS Children’s Villages - The NGO providing hope to at-risk youth

Today, SOS Children’s Villages Israel has crossed an exciting, but challenging, threshold. As one of the stronger branches of the international organization, it was determined that by 2020 it would become financially self-sufficient, as a result of a process that began in 2015.

Meirav Marziano, a house mother at the SOS Nedarim children’s village in Arad, prepares lunch for the six children she under her care (photo credit: Courtesy)
Meirav Marziano, a house mother at the SOS Nedarim children’s village in Arad, prepares lunch for the six children she under her care
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Every Friday night, Augusto Medina, 25, goes to Yaffa Sofir’s house for Shabbat dinner.
“I have a good relationship with my parents, but they know that Friday night I go to Yaffa’s,” says Medina, who as a child spent five years living at the Neradim SOS Children’s Village in Arad during a difficult time for his family.
“Everyone who grew up with [Yaffa] comes to her to eat Shabbat dinner. She is really like a mother. She is a continuation of where we grew up: there was a mother there when we needed one.”
Sofir was Medina’s house mother during his time there, and he says it is this sense of family which differentiates the SOS Children’s Villages Israel – there are two in Israel, the other village, Megadim, is in the north in Migdal Ha’emek – from other institutions and boarding schools for children at risk and is a big part of the village’s success in taking at-risk children, giving them stability and helping them integrate into the community around them.
SOS Children’s Villages Israel is part of the SOS Children’s Village International network.
“You live in one house with a housemother or counselor, in a smaller unit, and it gives you the feeling of a home, a sense of belonging – of really feeling that you belong. This is your house, your dining room, it is not a cafeteria,” says Medina, who is among the thousands of Israeli children who spent part of their childhood at one of the two SOS Israel villages. “There is a real family atmosphere and you feel like there is someone who is caring for you and wants what is best for you. As child you feel there is someone who is also defining the limits for you, which is also an important process. We learned it was important to go to school every day.”
When he and his older brother first came to the village, Medina says he had a lot of anger and had a history of fighting in school. With therapy, which included long hikes outdoors, he was able to deal with the issues that created this behavior and was able to let go of his anger, he says.
“This process really [made] me more patient, more tolerant, more able to understand the importance of school, which gave me the ability to study today,” he says.
Medina stayed at Neradim until the age of 14 and served three years in the Israel Air Force. After his release from military service he came back to Neradim to work as a counselor, and is now studying sports education at the Kaye Academic College of Education in Beersheba.
“Working at Neradim village was an amazing, unique experience, and it changed a lot in my life. Working with these kids here changed me,” says Medina.
SOS Children’s Villages were founded in 1949 by Austrian child welfare worker Hermann Gmeiner following World War II to help children orphaned in the war. Its umbrella group, SOS Children’s Villages International, was established in the 1960s, with SOS Children’s Villages Israel founded in 1981. Today SOS Children’s Villages International is active in 136 countries and territories around the world, providing hundreds of thousands of children with alternative care (while strengthening families), schools and health centers, among other community-based work.
The SOS Children’s Villages concept is based on long-term family care, and its organization is based on a family structure. In Israel, the villages comprise 12 homes, where seven to nine children of various ages reside in each home and each is run by an SOS mother, who lives with them.
The villages care for children from the ages of six to 18, with the older children living in separate homes, and boys and girls are separate. SOS Children’s Village Israel also continues to care for their older alumni aged 18 to 25, including during and after their army service, with 14 independent apartments located across the country for those alumni who need a place to live.
It continues to support them as they make the transition into independent adulthood, helping them with education, employment choices and day-to-day living. Each apartment is staffed with a social worker and a pedagogical specialist.
“When my own biological children reached the age of 18 they didn’t actually know what to do, so you can imagine that children leaving children’s villages and boarding schools need more guidance to take care of themselves until they are able to stand on their own two feet,” says Nelly Geva, SOS Children’s Villages Israel chief executive officer.
Alumni who choose to remain in one of the apartments are assisted throughout their army service and with the job search process or applications to universities following their release from military service, says Geva.
Two apartments in Jerusalem are part of the Bridge to Independence program, which is funded by Israel’s Welfare Ministry as well as by donations from Yedidut Toronto. The program provides extra support for ultra-Orthodox young people who have come through other boarding school systems.
Some of the apartments include a youth worker, others, a social worker. The social worker supports, helps and directs the young women in all their everyday tasks. She works with them individually and as a group.
The apartments also include a “big sister” roommate, who lives with the young women, and a religious director who visits the young women once a month and helps them with religious matters, serving as a bridge to the religious community. Denise Erlanger, religious director, also helps with matchmaking, if a young woman decides she is ready for marriage – and two of the young women have gotten married.
“We want to prepare young people as best we can for independent living,” says Hagit Sabag-Grabovitzky, the program director. “We accompany them in a holistic way and every person creates their own personal program. There are a lot of conversations. Becoming independent is not easy and sometimes we see them making decisions we would not make, but this is part of learning to take responsibility for their choices. We support them and help them learn for next time…and they become stronger.”
SOS Children’s Villages Israel also run 10 day care centers in Bedouin communities that provide hot meals, help with homework and extra-curricular activities for elementary school-aged children from the communities. They also provide workshops for mothers, to empower them and help them gain new skills.
Today, SOS Children’s Villages Israel has crossed an exciting, but challenging, threshold. As one of the stronger branches of the international organization, it was determined that by 2020 it would become financially self-sufficient, as a result of a process that began in 2015. As the villages have become an independent entity as of January 1, 2020, they no longer receive funding from SOS Children’s Villages International, so they now will need to supplement the funding they receive from the government with donor funds from private donors.
The first independent fund-raising event  was held in December in Tel Aviv, hosted by actor Jacob Zada Daniel of the popular Fauda TV series, who grew up in the village of Neradim.
“Israel is a wealthy country, but it is really not easy. To keep what we can offer to the children at a high level we need a lot of money. I will have to make some hard decisions,” says Yaniv Yahav, director of the Neradim village, just having fielded a call from the welfare services requesting him to take in four sisters to the village’s emergency shelter.
The children from the village attend the neighborhood schools and are a part of the community where they live, including participating in extra-curricular activities. At the end of last year 13 children from Neradim participated in a music and arts program in Germany with an SOS Children’s Village there. Yahav is now trying to find funding for a computer course one of the children at Neradim requested.
“We have enough for the basics. The first [important] thing that we must give the children who come here is stability. All the chaos of their lives stops. They come here with a lot of neglect. A lot of kids don’t have parents at all, they are orphans or parents who are in jail. This is their stable home,” says Yahav, who lives in Neradim with his family and his youngest child was born here in December. “We know we are an institution, but we are very home-like. We believe a child needs to be raised in an environment as similar to a home as possible. We believe in each child.”
For Yahav, working with children in need is a continuation of the legacy of his grandmother Chasia Borenstein, who was a partisan in Poland and later opened the first orphanage for Jewish children in Poland following World War II, eventually taking 500 children with her to Israel.
He notes that the children at the village come from all different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Some families are financially well-off but emotionally and physically not present for their children, he says.
Still, he says, they believe parental involvement in their children’s lives is very important and parents retain custody of their children. There are regular visits home and parents participate in school meetings.
“We work with the parents and try to build a healthy relationship with their children. It is important to maintain the relationship with their parents and family. Even though it may not be a complete relationship we try to make it work,” says Geva. “Everyone is born into a family and it is important to keep the connection with your family even if those contacts are complicated and you can’t maintain a full connection or receive all of your needs from your family.”
It is mid-morning at Neradim, and in their kitchens, house mothers Meirav Marziano, 43, and Hagit Hen, 52, are preparing lunch for their children when they return home from school. Though they received the same ingredients, each housemother prepares her own home-cooked meal – and while Hen prepares fried meatballs, in Marziano’s kitchen the smell of meatballs simmering in tomato sauce to go with her couscous wafts through the house.
“I am here to wake them up and get them ready for school. I prepare breakfast for them and their sandwiches for school. I send them off to school and I am here for them when they return,” says Marziano, who is a house mother for six children aged 7-13 years old. “I am fulfilling an important role for them.”
Though the children arrive a bit disoriented and upset, it takes just a few days for them to fall into step with the routine at the homes, says Hen.
“At first it is difficult for them to adjust,” she says, recalling how one five-year-old boy would go into rages and would sit alone holding on to a security blanket. “I just sat with him, and caressed his head and he opened up to me. He isn’t able to go to his family for Shabbat, and I was able to get permission for him to come to my house. I ended up fostering him. It is a great feeling to see how children who have come here from a difficult situation are able to overcome it.”
In addition to the house mothers, Neradim’s 48-member staff includes five social workers, two psychologists, one psychiatrist and one nurse.
The process each child goes through is different, says social worker Yaara Biton, who heads the treatment department, and success in developing life skills and overcoming their rough beginnings is different for each child.
“Everyone is coming from a different place. [But] all the children who come here [have] serious gaps in their development and support system,” says Biton. “They are missing consistency in their lives. When they arrive here they are in a big crisis, because no matter how the parents behave, that is the only thing the child knows... some of the children act out…The framework [here] is very basic but very significant in their lives and helps them develop stability and consistency.”
The average stay for children at the village is five years, so it is also important that there be consistency within the staff, she notes. Even the alumni know they can come back and ask for help or advice if they need it, she adds.
Mary Aroati, 43, who came to Neradim when she was 11 years old with her younger siblings, following a very difficult situation at home, runs a successful business in the center of the country with her husband, offering after-school activities, and is the mother of two adult children and a teenager.
“I will always be an abused child but the question is not to pass that on to my children,” Aroati says. “The circle of abuse was broken there by the work of the village. The village saved me and my future family. Their efforts helped me become a healthy person, who contributes to society and to my family. They gave me the tools to succeed. They made me see that something else is possible. When you give a person hope, that is half the battle.”