In Megadim, it takes a village to raise a child

The single ‘mothers’ who raise eight at-risk children in their homes in the SOS Children’s Village in Migdal Ha’emek tread a fine line between treating their charges as their own and maintaining their relationships with the biological parents

Schoolyard521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Currently Clara Sekora has nine children, but she has to stop and count the number she’s raised over the past 12 years. That’s how long she’s lived and worked in Megadim, the SOS Children’s Village in Migdal Ha’emek.
Hers is a house is full of preteens and teenagers. At three in the afternoon, one of her boys is engrossed in something on the computer. Three girls sit talking over the lunch Sekora has made.
One teenager heads out to an activity as a few drift in from school. Two of her kids will only be home at 5 p.m.
Sekora, 60, who chats about recipes and life as she ladles out soup, seems to thrive on all the activity, and it’s immediately obvious that she is deeply dedicated to these children to whom she is mother.
SOS Children’s Villages was founded in 1949 by Austrian Hermann Gmeiner (1919-1986), who was concerned about the many displaced and orphaned children caught in the aftermath of World War II. He designed the structure according to an ideology based on four pillars: Each child should have a mother, a house, siblings and a village. In 1960, SOS-Kinderdorf went international.
Today there are almost 500 villages in more than 130 countries.
Megadim is one of two SOS Children’s Villages in Israel; the other is Neradim, in Arad. Both are administered by The Israeli Association of Children’s Villages.
Village director Benzi Biram has been at Megadim almost from its inception 15 years ago.
“Megadim has nine family units, each consisting of one ‘mother’ and eight children. There are boys and girls in each house, of varying ages. Just like a regular family,” he explains. “And our campus is a neighborhood within the town of Migdal Ha’emek.”
Except that this is not just any old neighborhood.
The main street of the village leads across the crest of a hill, past offices, a clubhouse and homes. Stairs lead down the hillside to a wooded area where a petting zoo, a basketball court and a large vegetable garden are located.
Cellular provider Cellcom Israel has donated an exercise course and a music room. Teenagers have their own clubhouse, outfitted with billiard tables and computers. The buildings are wellcared- for; the grounds are spotless.
Unlike many boarding schools, and in keeping with Gmeiner’s ideal, there are no husband-and-wife couples in the family units. While this concept at first seems outdated and strange, the explanation makes a lot of sense.
“When there is no father, the mother and the children form the family,” explains Biram. “When there is a couple – a father and a mother – they become the central unit, and the children come after.”
This model seems to serve the children well, reflecting the SOS motto, “A loving home for every child.”
In 1990, when she came on aliya from Ukraine with her four-year-old daughter, Sekora had to work at two jobs to make ends meet. She felt like she never saw her child, and she decided to look for a lifestyle that made more sense.
While working at a school in Moshav Nahalal, she attended an event at Megadim. What she saw made her cry.
“Nowhere else gives children what they get here,” she says. “And I wanted to give, too.”
She moved to the village soon after.
Her house is comfortably furnished.
It has a compact kitchen and an openplan living/dining room. The children share bedrooms, which are divided between boys and girls. One of them belongs to her biological daughter, who has just finished a university degree in marine biology and is traveling in India before beginning graduate school.
“There is no difference between my daughter and my other children,” Sekora says, and indeed, to the outside observer, they seem so well-adjusted that it’s hard to remember that every child here has been removed from a biological family among which they most likely suffered neglect, instability and abuse. Extensive support services help to ensure the well-being of everyone in the village.
“We take a holistic approach,” says Avivit Katz, director of fund development for SOS Israel, which is headquartered in Petah Tikva. For regular health care, children visit the local health fund clinics in town, but a wide range of therapeutic counseling and activities are available on the Megadim campus. Social workers provide constant support for the staff as well as for the children. There are therapists and a psychologist, and a psychiatrist comes every other week.
The children receive help with homework and tutoring in specific subjects. They participate in afterschool activities both on campus and in town. Each is required to choose at least one activity from a long list that includes cooking, sports, drama and animal therapy. One girl, who found it hard to narrow down her preferences, is now enrolled in 10 different activities.
Children accepted into the Megadim program exhibit normative behaviors, meaning they aren’t developmentally delayed and don’t have histories of violence.
“We work closely with the Welfare and Social Services Ministry. Some children don’t fit into our framework; an alternative framework needs to be found for those children,” says Biram.
“Our children have inner boundaries.
We don’t have the types of discipline problems that you find at some boarding schools. Of course we have children who require special education – they develop wonderfully.”
Most children come to Megadim between the ages of six and 11.
Recently a four-year-old joined the village, but it is unusual for a child that young to be put in this framework.
“Our children have been taken out of their homes in one of two ways,” the director continues. “It’s done either by court order, or by agreement between the parents and the local authority.”
BEFORE MAKING the decision to place the child in an institution, the parties involved explore every alternative, such as finding a family member who can take the child in. Sometimes several years pass between the time the child is identified as being “at risk” and their arrival in Megadim. This can make the adjustment period even more difficult, but usually it’s relatively short.
When a child first arrives, they sometimes blame the house mother.
“There is a lot of talk, lots of hugs, lots of love,” says Lea Cohen, 60, who has lived here for four years.
“When I first came, it was hard – to see the kids and hear their stories. My bed and my pillow know how hard the beginning was,” she says, smiling.
“When I arrived, I was given a week to organize myself, and after 10 days, I had eight kids. But I was helped and supported through the whole process.
It was as good as it could be.”
Although she’s always worked with children, mostly in various musical programs, Cohen studied business management. She says that knowledge has been useful in terms of running a busy household. Asked how she feels toward her eight children – aged about nine to 14 – she does not hesitate: “I feel like I gave birth to them.”
She adds that “some of them are closer to me than others, but most are very connected.”
Once in a while, one of her children calls her “Ima.” When that happens, she corrects them. “I’m not supposed to take the place of their mother.”
An important aspect of the SOS model is to include the biological parents in their children’s lives. Children speak to their parents regularly, and the parents are consulted on all major issues.
“It’s part of my job,” says Cohen.
“My relationship with all of the parents is good – with some of them, it’s very good.”
Some parents involve their children too much in what is going on with them.
“It’s a bit like being a case manager,” says Katz of handling biological parents.
“And you learn as you go along.”
The walls of Cohen’s living room are painted a deep yellow. Her collection of carved African masks hangs in the dining area.
“I wasn’t planning on displaying those,” she says, pointing to an arrangement of miniature copper pots displayed on a shelf, “but I brought everything I owned with me. The kids saw them and liked them, so I put them out. I designed my house according to what I felt the kids needed.”
Her house in Megadim gives her own, grown children and grandchildren as much of a sense of home as it would anywhere else. Sometimes she has 20 people around the table at Shabbat dinner. Her Megadim children love it.
“On Sunday they want to know who’s coming on Friday,” she says.
The children leave the village to visit their families every other week. But not everyone goes at once – to ensure that the village never empties out.
Children who aren’t able to visit their biological families are given host families who live in the surrounding area.
In most cases, a close connection occurs. There have been several instances of host parents fostering their child, and in one case the host family officially adopted the child. Of course, this had to be done with the cooperation of the biological family.
The home visits, and the fact that the children attend regular schools and participate in extracurricular activities both in Megadim and in town, mean they don’t lack for male role models.
In addition, a group of young, religious women live on the campus and volunteer there as part of their national service.
There is also a group of high school graduates who have deferred their army service to volunteer for a year. These young men and women are teamed up with a mother and integrated into a family unit.
They help with homework, serve as mentors to the children, and plan and run a range of activities both for the children and for themselves.
Additional support comes from an invaluable network of “aunts.” These women are involved in all aspects of running the village, and even fill in for the mothers when necessary.
“Mothers come to ‘live’ here, not to ‘work’ here,” says Biram. But like any employee, they earn a salary and get vacation and sick days. And like any mother, they are available around the clock.
SEKORA’S DAY starts early. She gets up to hand out medication to those who have prescriptions, and to put out breakfast.
Her six girls and two boys attend five different schools, and each leaves the house according to their particular schedule.
During school hours, her time is taken up with shopping, taking kids to doctor appointments if necessary, staff and professional meetings, continuing education classes, and personal errands. She tries to be home by noon to make lunch, and the children start to arrive home about 2 p.m.
“Basic foodstuffs and cleaning supplies are bought in bulk,” Biram says. “But each mother can fill in what she wants. Each house is individual.”
Because she’s been in Israel for so many years, and because she’s a good cook, Sekora has developed her own style of fusion cooking. Katz jokes with her that she’s managed to blend Russian food with Moroccan spicing.
Most teenagers have very definite food preferences, and Sekora’s are no different.
She has a vegan, a vegetarian, and a few who love meat. As in any government institution, kashrut is observed.
Sekora does her best to accommodate.
“At the beginning I did everything – all of the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry.
The social worker asked me why,” she says. She shrugs and laughs. “The kids actually wanted to do more. Now, no one has a specific task, but everyone does something.”
She tries to get one-on-one time, too.
“We talk. But they have their moods,” she says. “Not everyone wants to share everything with me. That’s fine; that’s natural.”
One of the pillars of SOS is that the kids fill the roles of siblings for each other. That can be great for the mother.
“One of my older girls takes the younger ones shopping. She likes it and she’s good at it,” Sekora says. “One, who’s a good student, helps the others with their homework. My own daughter did, too, before she went to university.”
Of course, like siblings, the kids don’t always get along.
“I try to tell them this is part of their life. You will help each other like you would help your brother,” says Cohen.
“The kids feel like a family.”
From the age of 13 or so, the children have the option of moving into a youth house.
“They are not obligated to do so. It should be a move forward,” says Biram.
Still, the decision to move out can be hard on the mother. One felt so bereft when her child chose to move that she felt she couldn’t perform her duties.
YAEL DORI is the Welfare and Social Services Ministry’s national supervisor of boarding schools serving children and youth, in Jerusalem. Explaining how the system works, she says municipal or local social workers usually identify the children they consider to be at risk. Committees within the local authorities decide – along with the children, their parents and teachers – when a child should be removed from his or her home environment.
There are four “profiles” of youth villages and boarding schools that provide varying levels of care. Megadim is categorized as “rehabilitative,” with children who are highly functional.
Schools in this profile receive NIS 5,500 per month, per child, from the ministry.
This amount is calculated and budgeted according to the actual costs of providing for a child. (The decision to increase this amount is already in place and waiting for the installation of the country’s new government.) A regional inspector audits each village or boarding school, visiting once every three weeks.
Dori is satisfied with the way Megadim runs.
“While the ministry prefers a model that includes a couple (a husband and wife) and children,” she says, “SOS’s format is unique to them – and it works.
With about 80 children, the size is average.
It has a nice campus. And it works economically.”
She adds that “at Megadim, it is very important to them that each child be placed close to home.”
This dovetails with the emphasis they place on the involvement of the biological parents.
“Of course I would prefer that no child should have to be taken from their home. But beyond that, it’s important that every effort is made that a child out of their home is protected. I would like every school to offer a protective environment for the kids,” says Dori.
That is certainly important at Megadim.
“The children feel this is their home – even the ones whose hearts are with their parents,” says Cohen. She stops and clarifies: “Even though they feel good here, their hearts are still with their parents.”
And she thinks that’s the way it should be.
When a child turns 18, the ministry no longer supports them. By that time, many are strong enough to go back to their biological families when they enter the army. But some move into a “graduate apartment” and continue to live at the village. An SOS fund was created to provide emotional and financial support through the army years and university studies.
The SOS model also believes strongly in outreach.
“We are not just a boarding school,” Biram insists. “We have ties with the community.”
In an effort to help families in need before they reach the point of having their children removed, an after-school program on the Megadim campus serves Migdal Ha’emek children. Four similar programs take place in the three unified Beduin villages of the nearby regional council of Ka’abiya-Tabbash-Hajajre. All offer hot meals, activities, help with schoolwork, and therapeutic counseling.
Demand for these programs is great.
In Megadim, there’s truth to the saying “It takes a village to raise a child.” It also takes a lot of resources. Donations bring in an additional 15 percent beyond the amount the village receives from the government, but the need is endless.
The air-conditioners are old and energy consuming, furniture needs replacing, buildings need renovations or additions.
And it takes a lot of love and dedication, too. Volunteers and host families are always needed. In Megadim, says Biram, “we offer children the opportunity to gain the tools to move forward.”
That’s something every child deserves.