In a parking lot of a disadvantaged neighborhood, somewhere in the south of Israel, two visionaries set up a small fire and sit next to it. Teenager gangs start showing up, and provokingly, but also somewhat curiously, they ask, “What are you guys doing here?” One of the strangers says, “We need your help. Have a seat and I’ll tell you what this is about.”
The two visionaries are Avraham Hayon and Oded Weiss, the founders of SAHI. For the teenagers (later to initiate the very first pilot program of SAHI), they are the first strangers to ever turn to them for help. They have been offered help many times (by government representatives, educators, social workers and charity organizations), but no one has ever given them the feeling that they are needed. For many of them, what Avraham and Oded asked them that day, back in 2009, changed their life forever. For the first time in their lives, they feel that they can truly contribute to someone, and organize to do something great. Many of them embrace this opportunity and later make an inspiring transformation, turning from being (labeled) ‘a social problem’ to being a social blessing.
What Avraham and Oded told the at-risk teenagers on that night is that they want to help people that severely need help and are unnoticed by authorities. They explained that they can never do it without the help of someone from inside the neighborhood.
This is the basic idea behind SAHI, and what distinguishes it from other charity organizations, to make it, what Avraham likes to call, a social start-up. Rather than offering at-risk youth help, SAHI asks them to help others.
Let me briefly explain the novel idea behind SAHI and dwell on what makes it particularly unique.
SAHI operates in disadvantaged neighborhoods. It is based on teenagers living in those neighborhoods, who are able to provide accurate “intelligence” about the people in the neighborhood that need help. On a regular basis, the teenagers collect food ingredients and distribute it secretly (to save embarrassment from anyone who badly needs assistance but finds the need for assistance undignified). Aside for that, teenagers also initiate special operations, depending on urgent specific needs that come up.
Having teenagers participate in operations for their own community does not only make the given assistance very effective. Aside for doing good in the community, the teenagers themselves undergo a process that intensifies their sense of meaning and autonomy.
Charity organizations often give rise to a stark asymmetry: they are the benefactor, and their target-society is the beneficiary. SAHI breaks those rules. SAHI do not only donate kindly, they donate kindness, so to speak. The main resource they are giving away is kindness itself. And kindness itself, one may add, is indeed a privilege. Practicing kindness, even secretly, without straightforwardly satisfying any interest, is sometimes the key to transform so as to enjoy other benefits.
The most striking thing about SAHI is that they have managed to make an impressive and deeply influential social change while not purporting to change the values of society.
Among a huge variety of social movements that struggle for a change of values or judgments, SAHI is refreshing. Their originality is not directed to work at the level of values, but rather to design new and ingenious ways of realizing values that are beyond dispute.
“The world would be in better shape if people would take the same pains in the practice of the simplest moral laws as they exert in intellectualizing over the most subtle moral questions,” says the Austrian author Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach. SAHI leaders do not only take the pains in practicing the trivial requirement of doing good deeds, they have put their intellectual efforts in seeking for the best way to maximize goodness. Morally speaking, their formula is a promising investment: allocating kindness to cultivate not only the good of society, but society’s goodness.
Indeed it is what made this project, bonfire after bonfire, grow. Today they operate in 30 units all over Israel, with hundreds of at-risk youth, who provide weekly assistance to over 2000 families and individuals. SAHI received the “Speaker of the Knesset Quality of Life Award for 2016” and their leaders were invited to AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC, to present their Israeli promising enterprise.