The volunteers from abroad

Some American high-school students go to camp or work. These girls came to Israel to give and learn at the Reuth Medical Center.

"Reuth" means friendship. (photo credit: Courtesy)
"Reuth" means friendship.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Eight 16- and 17-year-old girls wander through the halls of Reuth Medical Center in Tel Aviv, stopping to chat and hang out with elderly patients.
For the first time, Reuth – a multi-disciplinary umbrella nonprofit organization specializing in health and social welfare – has teenage interns working at its centers in Tel Aviv. The girls are all high-school students from the New York and New Jersey area, entering their final year of school in the fall.
The organization’s medical center, the largest rehabilitation hospital in the country’s central region, has subsidized community housing, senior homes and day centers, a 24-hour information call center and other projects, according to its website. In addition to its three main departments – occupational therapy, physiotherapy and speech therapy – there are quality-of- life therapies, including animal therapy, art therapy and drama therapy.
The internship program is run through American Friends of Reuth, and began recruiting this past year by going to high schools in the New York and New Jersey area. It was marketed as being very hands-on, unlike comparable programs in America.
Most of the interns had some previous interest in the medical fields.
“This program would help us decide if this was something we wanted to do,” explains participant Tamara Sastow.
The difference between these volunteers and other volunteers in the hospital is that these interns are not merely moving patients around and socializing, but asking questions and being involved in their rehabilitation process.
“The aim [of the internship] was for it to be really hands-on, to really get experience. The staff here knows that we want these girls to get involved on a professional level as much as they can,” says Miriam Frankel, Reuth’s deputy executive director of resource development.
The interns are the youngest volunteers in the building; all other volunteers are at least 19 years old.
“Even the patients are shocked by our age,” acknowledges participant Jessica Willner.
Each morning, the interns begin their day by feeding the patients. They then split into pairs, choose a specific therapy to observe that day, break for lunch, and have one-on-one patient time. Each day, the interns listen to a lecture, usually given by a doctor or nurse. Occasionally, there are special lectures, such as a car-accident prevention workshop, in which soldiers are brought in to learn the dangers of unsafe driving and hear stories from doctors, nurses and patients.
Initially, Gabriela Lupatkin, counselor and website manager of American Friends of Reuth, would bring the interns around to assigned patients for one-on-one time. By the end, she says, “the girls were going to their friends who were patients, not someone we were sending them to.”
But it’s not all work. One Israeli counselor’s job has been to manage trips and navigate the group throughout the country. Once a week, the interns have traveled to places including the Dead Sea, Safed, Haifa and even a naval base.
In the hospital, too, they have been exposed to some things they’ve never seen before.
“Reuth doesn’t have such pretty people there, it is not such a pretty place, but what they do there is so important. It is so worthwhile, for everyone,” says intern Yael Magid.
During their three weeks working at the medical center, the interns have found their individual niches.
Segal says she’s found herself enjoying the ventilation room; at one point, a patient on a ventilator commented on her nail polish, and the next day she and fellow intern Tehila Fruchter were in the room painting a patient’s nails. Segal was surprised that the nurses were “so accommodating.”
Another time, while Sastow, Segal and fellow participant Nina Weiss were struggling to get a reaction from a patient in the children’s ward, a volunteer walked in playing a flute.
“The children started smiling, choking on their laughter, smiling like you would never believe, moving back and forth in their wheelchairs – it was insane!” recalls Sastow. Before the summer, she knew music therapy was an option, but “now I saw and 100 percent, I want to be a music therapist.”
Beyond their responsibilities in the hospital, the interns have gotten to know many patients on a personal level.
“You walk outside and there are all these patients we are friends with just sitting there. You get into amazing conversations with them,” says intern Hannah Haruni.
Communication with the patients was difficult, irrespective of the language barrier, but the interns have found other ways to relate to the patients, including finding common music and cultural interests.
The experience has been eye-opening.
“We are so lucky with everything that we have. We cannot really take anything for granted, because some people really have nothing. We see that one person is missing a leg, and the next person is missing two legs and we have everything that we have,” reflects Segal.
Lupatkin, meanwhile, says she has been “so impressed with this group. They go above and beyond the things we ask them. The first day they went into breakfast to feed the patients, they went in with a very open attitude.” When asked if things were too difficult for them, she recalls, the response was, “‘It was hard, but I want to go again,’ ‘It was hard, but they needed us,’ or ‘I really liked it.’ They are giving from such a pure place, and they love what they are doing. I have learned so much from them.”
Declares Frankel: “‘Reuth’ means friendship, and the group has shown theirs.”