On the 'Wings of Krembo'

Ashkelon high school students aim to provide activities and friendship to children with special needs - and the program is off to a flying start.

krembo 88 224 (photo credit: Haim Baumwol)
krembo 88 224
(photo credit: Haim Baumwol)
For two hours every Sunday afternoon, the Katzenelson Community Center in Ashkelon hosts around 100 young people who are busy doing a variety of activities together, including arts and crafts, music, games, dancing or just hanging out and being kids. There's laughter, lots of talking and fun and there's also something The Wings of Krembo, a national youth organization that became active in Ashkelon in September, 2007. It pairs high school kids in the 10th grade with special needs people whose ages range from seven to 21. For those not familiar with the popular, exclusively Israeli recipe, a Krembo is a cookie topped with a dollop of marshmallow and dipped in chocolate, and is available only during winter months. Each Krembo is carefully hand-wrapped, much like the special attention given to a child with special needs. The idea for the project started seven years ago by Hod Hasharon resident Adi Altschuller, then 16, and has since spread across Israel. This is the first year the program is running in Ashkelon, but its popularity and success here in such a short time has made Ashkelon the largest of all the branches. Currently, 51 pupils from the local ORT Afridar High School, are all happily volunteering to be a part of this program. Meanwhile, more ORT teens are asking to get in on the project every week. Haim Baumwol is the father of eight-year-old Geffen, a second grader afflicted with cerebral palsy. Unable to find after-school programs for his daughter, Baumwol approached the Youth Department of the Ashkelon Municipality, and the city adopted Wings of Krembo. The head of the Ashkelon branch is Na'ama Maman, who was born and raised in the city and is doing her National Service with the program. "There are several aims of the program," she explains. "The first is to create a fun and healthy social environment for kids with special needs, giving them a place to make friends and socialize. The second aim is to educate people, especially teens, not to be afraid of people who are different - to accept them, interact with them and learn to like a person for who he or she is on the inside. The third aim is simply to give parents a rest from raising a child who has a special need." Since this is a youth movement, being part of it gives special-needs kids the feeling that they are just like everyone else and part of the Israeli youth scene. "We hope that the friendships that have begun now will continue long after the volunteers have graduated from high school," says Maman. "The special needs kids have a myriad of problems, from mild cases of cerebral palsy to severe retardation. Some are in wheelchairs, some walk with the help of walkers and crutches and one is legally blind. Not only did the ORT kids react beautifully to the idea, but through word of mouth many other kids have asked to get involved and now we can add more special needs kids to the project," she attests. In the initial phase of the project, the children's parents were required to attend an intensive six-week workshop leading up to their child's first meeting with their new friends. During these meetings - largely meant to alleviate their initial fears about leaving their children in the care of high school students - there were sessions with social workers, as well as an orientation visit to the Beersheba Krembo branch. The first meetings between Krembo volunteers and the special-needs children took place in the latters' homes, to break the proverbial ice and allow them to get acquainted with as little discomfort as possible. Each volunteer was accompanied by one of the organizers, making it easier for all involved. As in every non-profit organization, funding is a problem. The young participants come from all over the city and have to be transported to and from the community center by special vans. These are paid for by a shrinking municipality budget, which is now being further overtaxed by the security situation. Equipment for different activities needs to be purchased, and additional funds are required for special monthly programs held monthly - among them a martial arts workshop and night of folk dancing. Geffen Baumwol, meanwhile, is having a fantastic time with her new friends and eagerly awaits each Sunday. Her parents and teachers have already noticed changes in her, reporting that she's happier and more sociable with her classmates. This is only after a month in the project. "If this is what can happen after only four meetings," says Geffen's dad, "imagine how high Geffen and her friends can fly after weeks in the program."