So I’m standing in the kitchen fully dressed, but in my slippers and no makeup or jewelry. I’m frying an egg on the stovetop while I spread gvina lvana on the white bread that my daughter has demanded today (last week she would only agree to take rolls). I’m keeping an eye on the burekas in the oven and trying to keep up with the whatsapp messages that keep pinging on my phone. I’m moving fast, shouting commands to the other kids as I go: “Brush your hair!”, “No, not that skirt”, “Yes, you can take 5 shekels from my purse but I wish you’d mentioned it last night” “Your homework!!”… and it’s all under insane pressure because the clock seems to be speeding up and we all have to get out of the front door together in the next 4 minutes and we’re still far from ready. And as I chase everyone out and check that no-one has left any bags, lunchboxes or sports-shoes behind on the floor I think to myself “this is impossible!”
And then I think about the amazing housemothers I work with at Orr Shalom.
Our organization has Family Group Homes where 11 children live under the care of a couple of house-parents. I can’t begin to imagine what it is like to get 11 children out to school every morning, so I decided to interview one of our house-mothers to see how they cope.
The children have been removed from homes where they experienced terrible trauma, abuse and neglect. They range in age from 6 to 18, boys, girls, religious, secular, from every culture in Israeli life. Some of them are teenagers, so as ‘difficult’ as teenagers can be in regular life, these are teens who have had traumatic experiences and tell awful stories of every kind of abuse and neglect – certainly not easy to deal with!
I imagine scenes of chaos and shouting and general pandemonium, but Ilana (the house mother) assures me that everything is calm, smooth and orderly in the morning in her house. Her secret is to set up a strict routine, so that all the children know what to do and when to do it. Ilana gets up at 6am and starts her day with a nice cup of coffee as the first washload of the day gets started. She wakes up the children: four 8-year olds, five 10-12-year-olds and one 14year-old. Somehow they all get themselves washed, dressed and ready for the day without fighting, yelling or winding each other up! Their shoes, toys and possessions are always in their bedrooms, not strewn across the lounge and kitchen (unlike my house), so there is less chance of losing things, and fewer people to scream at when they can’t find something.
While the kids are getting themselves ready (on their own!) Ilana is in the kitchen preparing their breakfast. She lays out omelets, cereals, cheeses etc for the children and they get on with feeding themselves. Meanwhile Ilana starts to make 11 rounds of sandwiches according to a menu that the kids agree on at the start of the school year. Sunday is tuna, Monday is cream cheese and tomato… Kids are allowed to opt out of one day and ask for an alternative filling, but only one day! (I love this setup and I’m going to start running meals in my house like this!)
Then she makes the rounds of the bedrooms helping the stragglers finish dressing. Somehow she does all this without raising her voice or losing track of where everyone is up to! Did I mention that the housemother has a family of her own to deal with? – typically a couple of young children and a baby! They usually get help from their husbands, but often their partner has gone to work already and they are on their own. These house-mothers really are superwomen!
House-parents are carefully selected, everything is examined: their work experience, their psychological profile, their personal lives, how strong their marriage is – everything! But their responsibility is huge; they have to be ‘role model’ parents to children who may have never experienced a normal functioning family. They are very careful how they speak to each other and their own children as the kids are watching and learning from them all the time. Not many of us could manage this, right?
Did I mention that this is a 24/7 job? The children often need comforting in the nights when the nightmares and memories come back to haunt them. The house-parents are awake every night, giving love and hugs, patiently comforting, hugging and wiping away the tears… And then up again the next day at 6am to start the new day. I don’t know how they do it!
I learned a lot from Ilana, she’s so impressive, and I can see she’s doing a great job running that home. She’s given me a few tips to make my morning go more smoothly – my kids won’t know what’s hit them!
I am so honored to be part of Orr Shalom, working with these wonderful people who are changing the lives of some of Israel’s most vulnerable children.