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‘Forgotten siblings’ of children with disabilities reclaim their place in new program
"The program is not a treatment; it’s not a therapy session and it's not a hobby," Gitman told the Jerusalem Post. "It's an empowerment program where the focus is the child, the forgotten sibling."
Caring for children with disabilities demands significant attention and resources from a family. The non-disabled siblings, the “forgotten” ones, may often feel left out and even neglected. In an attempt to support them, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) launched an initiative to reach out for these siblings, giving them a platform to bond with children in the same situation.

"Siblings in the Field," a program developed by SPNI, brings 10 boys and girls from the ages 9 and 10, every other week, from the sidelines to the hiking trail at Givat Hatitora Nature Park in Modi’in. The group is led by a child psychologist, but Tal Gitman, SPNI’s coordinator of public activities in Modi’in, hurries to say that the program has a different idea.

"The program is not a treatment; it’s not a therapy session and it's not a hobby," Gitman told the Jerusalem Post. "It's an empowerment program where the focus is the child, the forgotten sibling."

"Here they learn skills--they learn about wildlife and nature in Israel. They hike, meet other children and learn guiding skills. And of course, we cannot forget since we are the Society for the Protection of Nature--they learn about the importance of protecting nature and how to do it."

The children not only are given a chance to develop their outdoor skills in nature hikes and workshops, but are also given a platform to share their stories in personal consultations and group meetings.

"There is a lot of place for the child to open up," Gitman told the Post. "But they don't necessarily want to talk about their families. It's usually not in the forefront of their minds. Once in a group activity we asked what everybody there had in common." Tal added. "All sorts of answers came up, not necessarily their siblings. Each one of these families, each one of these children is in a different place due to the different disabilities."

Founded in 1953 by a small group of teachers and kibbutzniks who came together with the mission of attempting to save the Hula Wetlands in northern Israel, SPNI has ever since acted as a stout protector of Israeli natural spaces. It counts with a a range of campaigns and programs aimed to bring greater environmental awareness to the wider public.

SPNI departments work closely with the government, schools and several organizations in the local and national level. "Forgotten siblings" was inspired by a program from Eilat's Field School, The Second Brother, after which Gitman modeled the after-school program, launching the initiative last November in Modi’in.

SPNI has a strong presence in Modi’in, a rapidly growing city that sits on a main ecological corridor, with several activities taking place, such as nature tours with community volunteers, community archeological digs, annual environmental courses.

“Modi’in already has the basis for such activities, including several programs that include children with disabilities,” said Gitman on the decision to start the program there.

At the end of the program, in the tenth gathering, the children take their families to a hiking trip, in which they lead the way.

Reclaiming their place in the family context is an important part of the experience. When they have the chance to share about their family lives, to talk about themselves and to plan a trip for the family, they become empowered.

"It also gives a chance for families to meet one another," Tal told the Post.

"This is also an important part of our program--creating a network, a community for the children and their families," added Gitman.
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