Their right to life, liberty and happiness

AKIM-Jerusalem provides a wide range of services for adults as well as children with mental disabilities or with special needs.

AKIM-Jerusalem521 (photo credit: Courtesy: AKIM-Jerusalem)
(photo credit: Courtesy: AKIM-Jerusalem)
The three multistory apartment buildings on Jerusalem’s bustling Hebron Road in the Baka neighborhood blend right into the landscape, like any other residential buildings.
But these are part of a small campus, serving as housing facilities for 170 adults with cognitive disabilities run by the AKIM-Jerusalem organization.
Since 1951, AKIM-Jerusalem has provided a wide range of services for adults as well as children with mental disabilities or with special needs in the Jerusalem area, to ensure the best quality of life possible for each and every individual.
Miriam Marcus, the organization’s senior executive for external affairs and resource development, stresses that the residents who live in either the Baka hostels (for lower-functioning adults), or in one of the 17 other apartment units scattered throughout the city and rented out by the organization (for about 100 higher-functioning adults), are “individuals with disabilities, and not the other way around, because at AKIM-Jerusalem we strongly believe that they are people first.” Marcus is extremely busy these days as she is in the final stages of planning for her organization’s most prestigious event of the year, its 11th annual “Miles for Smiles Bishvil AKIM-Jerusalem” (bishvil is a Hebrew word-play meaning “to benefit” and also “hiking trail”), a challenging three-day, 70-kilometer hike in which trekkers from Israel and abroad – who are flying in specially for the event – will traipse through the countryside while raising funds for the organization’s activities and services.
This year’s event, which is being held April 21-23, will take place throughout the trails of the Mount Carmel forests, so participants can witness the renewal and regeneration of life following the tragic forest fire there two years ago.
Marcus says that the Carmel region was specifically selected by committee for this year’s trek since “we believe that when terrible things happen, we have to get up and celebrate that we’re still here. That’s a part of Jewish life.”
So far around 50 participants are signed up for the hike, paying their own participation fees, while at the same time gathering sponsors to raise a minimum of $1,800 towards benefiting the organization. Marcus says that this year, three very special guests will be taking part in the event, Great Britain’s Ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould; US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro; and former Israeli ambassador to India and current director of the Jerusalem Foundation Mark Sofer. The VIPs all accepted personal invitations from the organization to join.
In addition to benefiting AKIMJerusalem’s residential facilities, the funds raised by the event will be earmarked for three other core projects the organization operates.
One is the Extended Day Tzaharon program at the Ben Yehuda Special Education School in Abu Tor. Marcus explains that between the hours of 2 and 5 p.m. Akim-Jerusalem provides special-needs children aged seven to 14 “with a fun environment in which they learn skill sets for the future.” The program, says Marcus, “is extremely beneficial for families that work full time, and need a place for their children with special needs after school that aren’t accepted anywhere else.”
Another service provided by the organization is called the Batsheva Chai home-care support program. Marcus explains that this program is similar to a “big brother” or “big sister” program where a trained AKIM-Jerusalem facilitator works with special-needs kids or adults in their homes and neighborhoods for two to four hours a week.
“Our staff works with these individuals and teaches them basic life skills including how to use money, how to buy things at the grocery store, or even just spends time with them playing football. This also helps the parents spend much-needed time with other children in the family or to run errands.”
A third core program is known as a “training apartment.” Over the course of 15 weeks, teens and young adults aged 17 to 25 with disabilities who are likely to one day move into one of the AKIM-Jerusalem’s residential facilities full time, spend one night a week with peers at one of AKIM-Jerusalem’s apartments.
Over the course of the program, participants work on everyday living skills and socialization skills, while the staff has a chance to determine what their most suitable living arrangement will be – either a hostel for a lowerfunctioning individual where there is 24-hour-a-day supervision or a private apartment for a higher-functioning individual. Marcus explains that the training apartment “also helps the families learn how to let go,” and accept that their loved ones will soon be living away from home.
She says that in addition to these programs, funds raised by the hiking event will go toward “providing additional services and equipment for AKIMJerusalem’s aging population in order to improve quality of life.”
She says with Jerusalem’s population aging, her clientele is no exception with over half her residents being over the age of 50.
On a midday tour of the Baka hostel campus, there is not much activity. Marcus explains that it is quiet because all of the hostel residents are at their jobs within the community, which AKIMJerusalem assists them in acquiring.
One resident who hasn’t gone to work yet is 43-year-old Avital M. Avital has been a resident at various AKIMJerusalem living facilities for more than 14 years. In addition to having a cognitive disability she has a genetic condition, in which her body’s muscles are rapidly deteriorating. Marcus explains that it is not uncommon for those who live in AKIM-Jerusalem’s facilities to have multiple disabilities.
Avital shows us her private suite with pieces of art on the wall that she designed herself. She says that she is very happy living at AKIM-Jerusalem, and her sister, who has the same degenerative disease, is a resident at another facility. Avital says that her sister often joins her for Shabbat, which she is thankful for.
Exploring the facilities further, a building on campus known as the Rachel Straus Center for Treatment, Training, and Leisure offers the hostel residents a wide variety of activities.
There is a specialized workout room to accommodate wheelchair-bound individuals.
In addition there is an arts studio, music room, multipurpose activities center, as well as a series of specially designed rooms in which various therapies are provided.
Marcus says the art studio is a very popular center for activity. She says that one of the hostel residents who is over the age of 60 and is mute, has learned to express himself and communicate through his artwork. In fact some of his art pieces and some of the other works of art by other residents have been purchased by collectors both here and abroad.
With such a strong focus on art at AKIM-Jerusalem, Washington native, MASA Israel participant and aspiring art therapist Isabel Barr is currently serving as a volunteer at AKIMJerusalem.
Her goal she says is “to gain experience with the special-needs population, especially in a group setting,” to further her pursuit of a master’s degree and an eventual career in art therapy.
AKIM-Jerusalem also boasts a Foreign Volunteers program in which young adults from all over the world come to Israel for periods lasting between three months and two years to work with the residents at the various residential facilities or with the children in the afterschool program. Marcus says that this year she has the most diverse population of volunteers ever, from Mexico to India and many other countries in between.
With her plate at work extremely full, Marcus admits that while it is hectic and tiring, “my favorite three days of the year are the ‘Miles for Smiles’ event.” While she personally doesn’t do the trekking, she serves as the logistics coordinator, scouting the trails in the days before the hike, and following after the group with her car as they walk, providing them with water at the various rest stops. She is also responsible for arranging the meals and adequate sleeping accommodations during their two nights away from home. But it’s all worth it, she says. Not only does the event benefit an important cause, but “I’ve made an enormous number of new friends over the years spending time with the trekkers.” ■ For more information on AKIM-Jerusalem or to register for this year’s “Miles for Smiles Bishvil AKIM-Jerusalem” go to