Love is in the air

Shalva's spirit of giving makes it a matchmaking hub for volunteers.

Dovi Ravivo, 24, has been a volunteer at Shalva (the Association for Mentally and Physically Challenged Children) since he was 11. Right after completing his army service, he returned to Shalva and was asked to help organize a birthday party for Yossi, the deaf and blind son of founders Kalman and Malky Samuels. Together with National Service women, including Tal Ben Zaken, and other volunteers, Ravivo worked rigorously from morning to night, inviting people from near and far who have helped Yossi since kindergarten, to make the party a success. During the party-planning process, Ravivo took a liking to Ben Zaken. "You know, I was looking at her, and she was looking at me," recalls Ravivo. The opportunity to declare his intentions came the night of the party, when Zaken offered Ravivo a ride home; he seized the moment to ask her out on a date and a few months later they were married. Ravivo and Ben Zaken's love story is but one example of the burgeoning number of matches at Shalva. Over the past 11 years, more than 30 marriages have taken place between Shalva volunteers, employees and National Service women. This year, say Shalva staff, there has been a "plague" of matches, including one marriage and three engagements - four if one counts the security guard, who got engaged to a girl he met at a wedding of a Shalva couple. "This is not the end of the story," Ravivo says smiling. "There are also two to three couples in progress." "When you give, you feel good. When you do good, you look good," explains Asaf Finkelstein, Shalva's Hebrew communications director. "It's the most wonderful and natural process in the world." "Typical men and women become irresistible to one another here," adds English communications director Andrea Simantov. "Hessed [kindness] brings out the best in people." Among their responsibilities, Shalva volunteers dress, and feed the children. They instruct the special needs kids on how to select clothing and prepare lunch, encouraging them to be more independent. As they laugh with and watch over the children, the counselors develop patience. This is a house of love, and our patients have to be surrounded by selfless, loving people, says Simantov. Indeed, Shalva-Beit Nachshon Children's Center in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood fits the bill. Its seven floors are reminiscent of Disneyland, with bright colors, cartoon characters and clowns on the walls, gates and entrance of the building. Four-hundred-and-fifty special needs children spend their days, and sometimes nights, getting different types of therapy and treatment in this wonderland, offering their parents some much-needed respite. "Shidduchim (matches) for volunteers And Benot Hasherut (National Service women)," has 22 National Service volunteers, selected from a pool of around 300 applicants. There are also 120 regular volunteers (about half of whom are boys) and 100 paid employees. "There is some tension between the girls and boys," admits National Service volunteer Zehavit Edelstein. This year, over one in six of Shalva's National Service volunteers either got engaged or married to other Shalva volunteers. But the National Service women are adamant that the matchmaking phenomenon was in no way an impetus to volunteer at Shalva. Still, the idea of marrying a Shalva volunteer is certainly appealing. "I personally would love to get married to someone from Shalva," says volunteer Racheli Silverman. "The place develops patience, an important quality in a person, and everybody here is warm and happy - they have to be." Amioz Goliani, 22, a paid employee at Shalva, and a volunteer since 10th grade, just got engaged to National Service volunteer Efrat Shafri, whom he met at the Shalva preschool. "I never paid attention to this whole shidduch rumor before I came," he says. But, "It's natural; there is a large concentration of good personalities here." "At many charity organizations, it is a trend for people working there to get married," says Ravivo. "Many people in hesed organizations or youth movements get married." "Every girl wants her boyfriend to love children, and for me especially, that he will love children with special needs," adds National Service volunteer Shimrit Hadar.