Save the youth!

Adolescents at risk have someone to turn to in case of need, thanks in part to Elem, an organization that offers teenagers support and a platform to express themselves.

A teen sits slumped in a chair 521 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
A teen sits slumped in a chair 521
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
It’s 10 p.m. in a public park, and despite the late hour, a group of teens seems to be in no rush to get home. In an effort to undermine parental authority, they come here to smoke, get drunk and go wild.
But there are others who come here for a different reason. Every week, groups of volunteers and professionals affiliated with the non-profit organization Elem hit the streets across the country “fishing” for teens either mired in problems or headed in that direction. The volunteers specialize in assisting these at-risk youth by providing them with support and guidance geared to help them better integrate into society and to prevent possible regression.
Yoel, 14, is one of the young people who evoke Elem’s interest. Considered a normal teenager with a family and educational framework, Elem believes he needs constant supervision to prevent him from gravitating toward trouble.
Feeling overprotected by his parents, he seems reluctant when it comes to making concessions such as coming home on time or not drinking alcohol.
“I don’t want my parents to snoop in my life,” he says. “I feel suffocated with my mom’s care. I need my space,” he mutters before leaving the park for home.
Others are more enthusiastic about chatting. In fact, many of the teenagers see Elem as a platform that enables them to express themselves.
“For me, Elem is like an additional family,” David, 16, tells The Jerusalem Post after bragging about drinking “several glasses of wine” two days earlier. “I can talk to them about anything. They listen and try to help without being judgmental, without trying to enforce their world perception on me.”
Apart from handling teenagers’ everyday issues, like social and identity problems, challenges of integration, domestic conflicts, clashes at school and so on, Elem tackles a series of more complex cases, including addictions, sexual assault, homelessness, detachment, violence and prostitution.
“We had cases when young girls were seen in the company of much older men,” says Yohai, Elem’s coordinator of evening mobile teams. “Their provocative clothes, excessive makeup, the late hours they were spotted and constantly changing faces of those accompanying them made the picture pretty clear.”
According to statistics, the country has about 500,000 young people at various levels of risk, 350,000 of them minors.
Most belong to low socioeconomic sectors, though members of the wealthier sectors are not rare among these ranks.
The majority come from the former Soviet Union, and some from Ethiopia.
Many of them witness violence, alcoholism and drug use at home.
Elem, with 30 years of experience, is just one of a wide range of institutions working hand in hand to assist those in need. They include governmental agencies such as the Anti-Drug Authority and the Immigrant Absorption, Welfare and Social Services, and Industry, Trade and Labor ministries, and they all cooperate with the country’s local authorities and numerous volunteer organizations. Among these are Shatil (Hebrew for “seedling”), which engages in counseling and providing services to vulnerable populations; Be’atzmi (By Myself), which aims to decrease the unemployment rate among the weaker segments of society; and Ruah Nashit (Women’s Spirit), which focuses on social and economic integration of women who have fallen victim to violence.
In 2011, Elem met with 36,000 youths (10 percent to 15% were female). Although this number has not seen a significant increase in 2012, Elem’s executive director, Efrat Shaprut, says the organization is facing a growing number of dangerous cases.
“Sexual abuse, physical violence, drugs and alcohol have become more frequent compared to the previous year. But now they are also taking on another dimension, rapidly spreading through the Internet to various social networks,” she states.
OPERATING A wide range of activities and projects, Elem reaches boys and girls in 40 locations across the country.
Perhaps one of its best-known programs is the “Night Van,” launched in cooperation with the Welfare and Social Services Ministry and the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews. Designed to seek out adolescents on their turf, this program enables Elem volunteers to establish a rapport with them and offer an ear to those in need.
Its Jerusalem-based “Galgal” (Hebrew for “wheel”; its equivalent in Tel Aviv is “Somebody to Run with”) is also gaining popularity. The idea behind the program is to provide shelter to homeless youngsters addicted to drugs. In addition to food, a warm shower and – if needed – medical assistance, the staff and volunteers are there to guide them on problems resulting from homelessness, addiction or prostitution. Their assistance includes anything from syringe exchanges to information on proper injections and means of contraception.
Elem also runs the “Shelter,” which provides accommodation for young women in Jerusalem involved in prostitution or drugs, and the “Real Home,” designed for women under 25 who have fallen victim to sexual violence.
The staff also cooperates with parents and maintains a website that provides tips and advice through the group’s network of information centers.
Yet despite intensive efforts in the field, the organization seems to be facing difficulties.
“One of our major challenges is the recruitment of skilled professionals and volunteers, especially from the Arab sector, the former USSR or simply those living in suburbs,” says Shaprut.
Elem has 280 employees and about 1,700 volunteers, definitely not enough to embrace the country’s various communities, such as the Orthodox or Beduin.
“Of course, there are other hardships that we have to address, like putting more emphasis on research and looking for more ways of prevention, but our main headache is, naturally, money,” she says.
One way to solve this problem lies in raising more awareness among the decision-makers. But with about 30% of the organization’s budget coming from ministries and local authorities, it seems the state is on the same page as Elem.
“Government involvement in the fate of those in need grew over the years,” says Tzipi Nachshon-Glick, director of adolescent and young adult services at the Welfare and Social Services Ministry.
“Authorities have invested NIS 100 million in the different projects aimed at reaching more youngsters seeking professional help. We allocate more funds for shelters, provide them with work and scholarships, enabling them to enroll in universities [NIS 10,000 per person a year],” she notes.
However, some problems remain. In a 2009 paper, Prof. Joseph Katan, a leading researcher in the field of social work, pointed out the diminishing nature of the state’s involvement in the fate of the weaker populations.
Among the problematic areas he highlighted were the services’ partial reach, the absence of detailed scientific research, and the lack of an overall governmental policy that would unite, guide, organize and coordinate the country’s multiple institutions.
Nachshon-Glick doesn’t deny the presence of hardships, but says the government is only at the beginning.
Promising to implement new policies in the short term, her ministry is now working on creating new ways to tackle the situation. Among these are plans for integrating youth at risk in the army, the creation of more jobs, provision of larger scholarships and other forms of financial assistance, development of additional projects tailored to the Ethiopian population, establishment of more shelters and hostels, and the recruitment of larger numbers of professional staff.
And while the government still struggles to deal with these issues, those coming to Elem do so in pursuit of higher causes.
“If you come here to change the world, get ready for a bumpy ride and a lot of disappointments. Maybe that’s why you should leave your expectations at home,” says Keren, who has been with the organization for two years. “Sadly enough, at times those kids go back to their old habits, and we can do nothing but continue giving them the support they deserve.”