Sunday morning, I arose bright and early to down a cup of coffee before grabbing the 9 AM bus to Jerusalem, where I was to tour the ALEH facility for special needs children, in conjunction with my work as an education writer at Kars4Kids. I sat down at my computer to do a quick surf of the news and saw that the Geneva agreement on Iran had been signed. This was not good news.

Facebook friends advised me to do something fun to take my mind off things. “Fun?” I said. “I’m going to tour ALEH. Not exactly my idea of fun,” I said.

“Oh, you’ll love it,” said one friend.

“Huh?” I thought.

Upbeat?

“ALEH is amazing. Such an upbeat place,” said another friend.

I shook my head. “What are they smoking?” I thought.

I met Sarah Lavin, of Finn Partners at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station. “You’re going to love it. It’s an incredible place, exciting.”

“Not depressing?” I asked.

“Not even a little bit,” said Sarah. “It’s just not that way at all.

And she was right. When we walked through the entrance, there was a young man peeking out at me from the next room. He gave me a huge smile. He had charisma, that kid. I smiled back and waved.

Dov Hirth, of Marketing and Development at Aleh. Dov handles the administrative side of Aleh, (photo credit: Varda Epstein)

Dov Hirth, of Marketing and Development at ALEH. Dov handles the administrative side of ALEH, (photo credit: Varda Epstein)

We sat down with Dov Hirth of Marketing and Development, who pretty much runs the administrative show at ALEH. He is a very busy man. Eventually Shlomit Grayevsky, ALEH director, joined us. The two of them gave us the lowdown on ALEH, followed by a tour of the facility.

ALEH was founded 31 years ago by parents fed up with the paucity of options for kids with severe disabilities. The monasteries would care for these children. But this was not an option for Jewish Jerusalem.

Keeping a child at home was an option, but that meant one parent had to be home, effectively cutting the family income in half. Israel was simply behind the times. Not to mention that there was a strong stigma surrounding those with disabilities.

Worst of all, before the advent of ALEH Jerusalem, there was no place offering care for children with disabilities accompanied by a complex medical dynamic. These children were left behind in hospitals or in old age homes. It was expensive for the State, since hospital care runs several hundred shekels daily, and it was dreadful for the children.

You’d find 10-15 year-olds living in old age homes. They’d sit, hunched over in wheelchairs, for hours on end, with no one to lift them upright to prevent atrophy. Many suffered deterioration in their conditions as a result of such neglect.

Children with low vision can use this sensory board to learn the days of the week. (photo credit: Varda Epstein)

Children with low vision can use this sensory board to learn the days of the week and more. (photo credit: Varda Epstein)

Thanks to grassroots efforts, however, the Jerusalem ALEH, a hospital within a facility for kids with disabilities, was opened to these children in 2007. The first Israeli facility of its kind, ALEH offers these children normalcy. There are no children left alone in rooms for hours. There is no neglect. The children are kept busy and active

Most of the children at Aleh can't speak, but they can gesture with a finger or a chin or even a gaze at a card displaying an activity they'd like to choose. (photo credit: Varda Epstein)

Most of the children at ALEH can’t speak, but they can gesture with a finger or a chin or even a gaze at a card displaying an activity they’d like to choose. (photo credit: Varda Epstein)

 

In addition to providing care and therapy, ALEH has also worked hard at removing the stigma surrounding disabilities by bringing the children to the community instead of hiding them away from public view. Thirty ALEH kids, for example, participated in the last Jerusalem marathon and a special track was set up just for them.

There is the annual ALEH Bridge March, held at the Chords Bridge not far from the facility. Volunteers wheel all the children across the bridge followed by singing and dancing at the plaza below. Hundreds of balloons are released into the air. There are lots of smiles from participants and bystanders alike. These activities serve to educate society that people with disabilities have a rightful place in the community of man.

Holidays at ALEH are amazing. Musicians come around during candle lighting, to offer musical accompaniment. Athletes play street ball on behalf of the children who get to watch the game and interact with the players.  ALEH even made a Mamilla Mall flash mob, even though it took extensive effort to obtain all the relevant permissions. The streets had to be closed off. All these efforts both expose the public to those with disabilities and eliminate the stigma.

Once upon a time it was difficult for ALEH to find volunteers. But today ALEH turns down 3-5 volunteer requests per week. Volunteers undergo a training program. Volunteering offers local youths as well as students from abroad a chance to meet children with disabilities, eye to eye.

The children of ALEH spend Shabbat weekends with “regular” families three times a year, doing everything typical families do on a typical Shabbat, albeit accompanied by caregivers and equipment. The kids even attend local Bnei Akiva youth group meets with the children of their host families.

A clown makes Parents Day a fun time for children, too. (photo credit: Varda Epstein)

A clown makes Parents Day a fun time for children, too. (photo credit: Courtesy ALEH)

Back at ALEH Jerusalem, family is important. Parents can come visit their children whenever they please, even if it’s just to pop in and give a child a goodnight kiss. The facility is open to the children and their families 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There are support groups for parents, for siblings, and even for extended family members. There’s a Parents Day with clowns and balloons.

ALEH Jerusalem has 80 fulltime residents, but 18,000 people benefit from ALEH’s services each year, receiving all sorts of therapies and outpatient services, including rehabilitation. Most of the children at ALEH can’t speak. But as Dov Hirth put it, “There’s an international language spoken at ALEH: the language of the heart.”

For more information about ALEH, go to: http://www.aleh.org/eng/index.asp