Shalva: Creating new ways to provide for people with disabilities, their families

Shalva’s comprehensive life-cycle programs, leading-edge therapies and inclusive educational frameworks have empowered families to raise their children with disabilities within the family framework.

 Shalva National Cente (photo credit: Courtesy Shalva)
Shalva National Cente
(photo credit: Courtesy Shalva)

Kalman Samuels’ long, silver beard and his calm, Canadian-accented voice conceals an active and imaginative mind that for over thirty years has been developing creative ways to provide quality care for people with disabilities, empower their families, and promote social inclusion. Samuels, who founded Shalva with his wife Malki, has always taken the road less traveled to find the most effective way to improve the lives of people with disabilities. 

Shalva was founded in 1990; however, the organization’s story begins thirteen year’s earlier when Kalman and Malki’s son Yossi was injured during infancy and became blind and deaf among other disabilities. Malki made a personal promise that if she would be able to penetrate Yossi’s world of darkness and silence, then she would dedicate her life to helping other children with disabilities and their families. At the age of eight, Yossi experienced a miraculous breakthrough to communication via sign language and speech; and in turn, the Samuels’ founded Shalva with an afternoon program for six local children. Since, the organization has developed to be a global leader in the field of disability care and inclusion.

“When Shalva began in 1990 as a small organization,” recalls Samuels, “we always spoke about the significance of the family and helping the family.” At the time, he says, professionals derided his approach; however, years later, it was confirmed to be an ideal approach and this is now accepted as the best practice. “We never wanted to replicate what existed,” says Samuels, “Everything we did was in niches that didn’t exist before Shalva existed, and we filled them in a unique way.” Samuels describes his fascinating personal journey and the establishment of Shalva in his memoir Dreams Never Dreamed.

Shalva’s comprehensive life-cycle programs, leading-edge therapies, inclusive educational frameworks and social and recreational activities have empowered families to raise their children with disabilities within the family framework. Children of all ages receive extensive help and assistance at Shalva daily. Infants with disabilities ages 0-18 months are guided to achieving their first developmental milestones through early intervention therapy sessions while their parents receive professional guidance, hope and fortitude. “That is what puts mothers back on their feet,” says Samuels. “The mother has other mothers to relate and talk to. She appreciates that she is not alone and that she is part of a larger community.”

Shalva offers a Day Care and an Inclusive Preschool which educates the next generation about the importance of creating an inclusive world and prepares children with and without disabilities for integration into the mainstream education system by first grade. Shalva provides a bevy of additional activities and programs, including an after-school activity center, a respite center, a sports and wellness program, a summer day camp and overnight camp, and family support programs; all of which take place at its expansive, state-of-the-art facilities in Jerusalem.

Samuels assures that Shalva is a continuing source of assistance beyond childhood and through adulthood and operates independent living apartments in the community for adults with disabilities. “Shalva can be with you until the end of time. When the children turn twenty-one, they can attend the Shalva Vocational Center and receive training for outside employment.”. The Shalva National Center itself is a model of workplace inclusion, employing adults with disabilities as staff members in the rehabilitative programs, Café Shalva, and in Shalva’s supported employment creative workshop.

All of Shalva’s programs are authorized by Israeli government ministries; and since the organization’s early days, the incredible growth and impact of the Shalva organization has been recognized as the fulfillment of the life’s work of Kalman and Malki Samuels. Over the years they have received many awards and accolades for their outstanding contributions to Israeli society. This past year, Kalman Samuels was honored with lighting a torch at Israel’s National Independence Day Torch Lighting Ceremony which he dedicated to Shalva’s families, dedicated staff and volunteers, and to his son Yossi who continues to be the inspiration behind that Shalva organization.

Today, Shalva has over 2,000 direct-care beneficiaries; however, the organization’s impact goes far beyond Shalva’s program participants and their families. Shalva’s social enterprises attract nearly 200,000 people from the broader community to the Shalva National Center every year. Additionally, thousands of dignitaries, government and organization representatives from around the world, and university students come to tour the center, learn about Shalva’s unique therapy models, and experience Shalva’s programs firsthand. Shalva also hosts disability awareness projects around the world; including sporting fundraising challenges, Team Shalva in the Jerusalem Marathon, and many other projects that connect individuals and communities to Shalva’s mission. In 2018 Shalva was awarded consultative status to the United Nations on disability care and inclusion issues.

 Kalman Samuels with his son Yossi (credit: JARED BERNSTEIN) Kalman Samuels with his son Yossi (credit: JARED BERNSTEIN)

The internationally celebrated Shalva Band, comprised of talented musicians with disabilities- some of whom discovered their musical talents as children in Shalva’s music therapy program, is one of the organizations most powerful inclusive initiatives; representing the power of hope and the strength of the human spirit. The Shalva Band performed at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2019 as ambassadors of a better, more inclusive society. 

Samuels reports that the Covid pandemic, which presented unique challenges to the organization in serving its population remotely, opened new opportunities to help others. “As a result of this experience,” says Samuels, “We learned to work and share everything we had, including therapy, on Zoom. Shalva staff began to answer questions and help organizations from abroad that were interested to learn from Shalva’s experience and expertise.” The Shalva Institute, which spearheads various education, training and research initiatives, was born. 

Shalva is continuing to expand in the coming year, says Samuels, despite the economic downturn. “Our influence has become global, and I say that humbly. What we do has become known in the far corners of the world,” he says. “We continue to break down barriers.”

The Hebrew word “Shalva” means tranquility, and for 32 years, Shalva has stayed true to its name. “Giving people peace of mind is our ultimate goal,” says Kalman Samuels. “The name “Shalva” was chosen because these families lack serenity and the ability to function and focus. Shalva gives them this.”