A childhood of hope

Kindergarten of Dreams offers promise for the youngest victims of cancer.

Kindergarten of Dreams, near Ramat Gan (photo credit: GADI OHAD)
Kindergarten of Dreams, near Ramat Gan
(photo credit: GADI OHAD)
Uri Cohen was one year old when his parents found out he had a form of liver cancer whose likelihood of occurring was one in two million.
Further tests revealed that his blood markers indicated that there was no comparable case in the past 20 years in which a child with his form of tumor (hepatoblastoma) had survived.
His father’s response to the news was simple: “So what. He’s going to be the first one to survive.”
In a world of endless hospital visits, tests and checkups, the children experiencing all this are deprived of the most basic privilege: a childhood. Unable to interact with other children due to their fragile immune systems, in many cases more time is spent at hospital than in their own homes.
It is here that the Kindergarten of Dreams near Ramat Gan, a daycare center established by the nonprofit Larger Than Life, fills the gap and plays the most extraordinary of roles. Having opened its doors in September 2014, the kindergarten takes care of 30 children from the age of three upward.
Established in 2000, Larger Than Life has a wide range of programs catering to the needs of children afflicted with cancer and their families. The programs are based on three pillars – happiness, health and hope – and cover everything from respite trips for families to funding medication that neither the Health Ministry nor health funds are able to provide for.
Sitting down in the impressive kindergarten (finished in the midst of the ever-present rocket-firing of 2014’s Operation Protective Edge) with Larger Than Life CEO Lior Shmueli, he explained the building’s genesis which lies in a focus group held with a group of mothers of children with cancer two years ago.
“We were sitting in my office with around 15 to 20 mothers, and we realized that children with cancer – especially young children of kindergarten age before first grade – don’t have any educational solutions, so they stay at home for two to three years,” the towering and deep-voiced Shmueli explained.
“Those children were sitting at home for two years with no friends, no socialization, no basic education. Because they have a lack of kindergarten and daycare, they can’t get into the first grade within their age group, because they don’t know the alef bet.”
And so it was that I found myself within what had initially been a focus group’s dream – a home in which children with cancer could interact, play and learn with one another like all other children.
Shmueli described the kindergarten’s concept. “We said, How has nobody thought of this before? If a sick child with cancer can be in an isolation room in the hospital, let’s build a whole kindergarten with classes so that the whole building functions like the isolation rooms in the hospitals!’” Thus, while the kindergarten is a sterile establishment, designed by a combination of hospital and school architects and kept scrupulously clean by a professional team that comes in at the end of every working day to clean even the smallest toys used by the children, the kindergarten has the feel of any other place filled with young children.
The first thing one hears upon entering is the excitement of playing between infants who, although afflicted by various diseases, see one another as friends.
For example, vomiting – a common side effect of chemotherapy – is something that the children are used to and, instead of reacting with shock, help one another with.
Uri is a prime example of the impact that the kindergarten has on its children.
After exhaustive searching by his family and various organizations and individuals, his tumor was removed by an expert in the field of liver cancer treatment flown over specially from America to Israel.
On his first day at the Kindergarten of Dreams, Uri had just had his final session of chemotherapy.
His father, Gitai, explained how, before Uri had started at the kindergarten, he was a timid child, used to doctors putting things into him more than to friends who wanted to play with him.
“He was afraid of everything – you’d A childhood of hope Kindergarten of Dreams, near Ramat Gan. (Photos: Gadi Ohad) open the door, and you could see in his eyes that he was watching; even at home, he was afraid of every sound.”
The comparison between now and then is something that truly astounds Gitai.
“Now, it’s amazing.” Time and time again when we talk, Gitai refers to his son as “a funny guy,” lovingly describing him as “someone you’d want to go for a beer with.”
Perhaps Uri’s biggest fan, however, is the director of the kindergarten, Ayelet Raplin. Sitting with me as I speak to his father, she every so often breaks into our conversation, beaming from ear to ear, to mention Uri’s “big beautiful blue eyes” and the joy that he brings to the building.
Raplin is not just the core of the Kindergarten of Dreams but, arguably, its spirit.
Trained in special education, she applied to work as the kindergarten’s director but was told that her young age (she is in her early 30s) and relative lack of work experience meant she was unsuited to the job. Despite hearing this, Raplin called Larger Than Life the next day and said very simply, “This is Ayelet from yesterday – I want this job.”
After waiting for a month, she received a phone call telling her she was the Kindergarten of Dream’s inaugural director.
Her role is one of intense responsibility, wherein she represents the point of contact between children whose medical conditions are unstable and their parents. It is her call each day as to whether a child will be able to attend the kindergarten, considering the state of their health, thereby ensuring that it is safe for the children to interact with one another. She runs a similarly tight ship with her staff, having made it mandatory to attend a group psychology session once a week.
The kindergarten, under Raplin’s watch, provides an extraordinary approach to education, wherein all aspects of life at the institution are tailored to the individual.
With the awareness that the children will be entering “real” school after their time at the kindergarten, they are helped with issues facing them and aided by practitioners who come to see them within the confines of the kindergarten.
One boy, who is slowly going blind as the result of a tumor, is being prepared by a specialist for dealing with his disability, a reality whose ramifications gave CEO Shmueli a quiver in his voice as he explained the child’s predicament to me.
From speech therapists to physiotherapists, the kindergarten even has its own in-house cook. Affectionately known as “Savta” Dina, she caters for the dietary needs of every child to ensure that everyone eats – a common side effect of chemotherapy being lack of appetite and major changes in the taste buds.
This stability provided by the kindergarten is not always a constant, however. Last year, for the first time, the kindergarten’s staff and pupils experienced the death of one of its students.
Gathering her staff together, Raplin and her team created a story for the children about a girl who had a tortoise that she had to take care of. One day, the girl went to check the tortoise in his box and saw that he wasn’t alive, but she was happy that she had been able to be with him, give him food and go out with him until he died. The children came to understand this, explained Raplin, drawing pictures and asking to look at images of him on the computer.
For the most part nonetheless, the Kindergarten of Dreams is a place of joy. Just a week before my visit, a party was held to celebrate a child having the port within his body, used to administer chemotherapy, removed.
It is rare in life to meet someone who loves her job as much as Raplin. Walking around the Kindergarten of Dreams with her, it became clear that it is in the safest of hands, and will continue to provide and care for children like Uri of the beautiful blue eyes, and many others, for years to come.
Some names have been changed at participants’ request.
To learn more, visit www.gdolim.org.il Larger Than Life is hosting its Gala Evening on January 25 at the Avenue event hall in Airport City, in aid of its medical supplies fund for 2016. For more information: dana@gdolim.org.il or (03) 619-5977.