Enabled Kids

It’s the high point of the week for Adi Maloul: an art session with friends at Beit Hagalgalim (House of Wheels) in Herzliya. The innovative support project for disabled youngsters lights up the face of the dark-skinned, short-haired 18-year-old.

Her high-tech wheelchair is parked at the end of a long table strewn with paint, pencils and huge sheets of white paper. A group of artists from Tel Aviv is working one-on-one with Maloul and her friends amid a high level of chatter and laughter.

Maloul, born with cerebral palsy, is a thoughtful 12th-grader from Netanya. She has been coming to after-school programs at Beit Hagalgalim for the past six years. The casual, relaxed atmosphere and activities with her peers help Maloul let her hair down in a supportive environment.

Maloul is one of 130 young people who belong to Beit Hagalgalim in Herzliya. Scores of others are served by three other smaller houses in Jerusalem, the Galilee and in the Negev Desert.

Most of the students attend many hours of physical therapy every week, affecting both their academic and social lives. Because of this, the goal of each house in the Beit Hagalgalim framework is the same: to develop social skills and foster independence for the youngsters, and to provide a respite for their families from the emotional and physical demands of caring for a physically challenged child.

Students come to Beit Hagalgalim through referrals by social workers or school principals and by word of mouth, leading to waiting lists for all four houses.

On a recent balmy evening in Herzliya, the specially equipped vans that transport the teens from home to the house disgorged their occupants, who quickly made themselves at home in the pleasant, spacious rented facility. Some teens moved to the kitchen, others hung out schmoozing in the shady garden, and a few wheeled over to the art tables, eager to begin.

Over the din, administrator Laura Kurten explains that students can take part in different activities almost every night of the week. Drama, video, music and journalism are some of the activities offered to the group, which includes people with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and other physical limitations.

Every six weeks, a group of 15 youths of the same age spend Shabbat together at the house, which is equipped with pleasant dorm rooms and wheelchair accessible bathrooms. In an atmosphere of tolerance and respect, observant and nonobservant youngsters come together for a weekend of singing, eating and games.

Kurten, a tall, slim, energetic immigrant from Argentina, is especially proud of Beit Hagalgalim counselors who enable the labor-intensive programs to take place. Because of their physical limitations, Beit Hagalgalim participants need one-on-one help, so about 185 volunteer counselors provide assistance.

Coming from all walks of life, the volunteers forge long-term personal relationships with their young charges. “Some of them start out with the kids who are 11 years old and stay with them through high school,” Kurten says. A few graduates of Beit Hagalgalim return as counselors, acting as role models for the younger students.

Graduates and participants eagerly anticipate summer. The highlight of the year, according to Kurten, is the weeklong summer camp. Groups travel with their counselors all over the country and experience challenging recreational activities, such as kayaking, surfing and jeep rides, along with more sedate things such as swimming and bus tours. “It’s a great opportunity to cement friendships and trust and stretch everyone’s potential,” Kurten says.

Committees that include participants, counselors and administrators plan the weekend and summer programs. The whole idea is to encourage responsibility and foster independence, Kurten explains. “This is one place where these kids don’t have to worry about a social worker running after them taking notes for a report.”

Beit Hagalgalim, itself, strives to be as independent as possible. While the 20-year-old program does receive some minimal funding through the National Insurance Institute, most support for its $1 million annual budget comes from private donors. Families pay around $25 a month, which barely covers the cost of transportation.

Today, some former counselors are successful professionals who serve on an advisory committee and help with fundraising. “But it’s a constant struggle,” Kurten notes.

The warm, family atmosphere and long-term student-counselor relationship is unusual in programs for the physically challenged in Israeli society. The quality of special education schools varies widely from city to city, but in general, life for the disabled in Israel is decades behind most Western countries.

Despite a large number of disabled war veterans, public transportation is not wheelchair accessible. There are no laws on the books regarding accessibility in public buildings or places of entertainment.

Most synagogues feature entryways with staircases and no ramps. In parking lots and streets there are designated handicapped parking spots, but few streets have wheelchair-friendly curb ramps, and many apartments built before 1990 have no elevators.

These challenges are set aside for a few hours as Maloul and her friends become absorbed in their art projects. Maloul, who returned from a special trip to Poland a little more than a month ago, has painstakingly transformed the white paper in front of her into a depiction of an embracing couple. She beams as several counselors come over to look at her work and praise her creativity.

Across the room, another young woman maneuvers her wheelchair with its mountain bike wheels closer to the table to finish off her drawing. A counselor comes over to give her a hug and whisper a few supportive words in her ear.

The scene is repeated at several spots around the bright room. Maloul looks around approvingly and remarks, “I love this place — it’s my second home.”

To find out more about Beit Hagalgalim e-mail org_shay@netvision.net.il .