As rockets rain down on south, home races to protect wheelchair-bound residents

As rockets rain down on south, home races to protect wheelchair-bound residents

By Melanie Lidman

During a red alert siren, residents of the area near Ofakim, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Gaza, have 45 seconds to reach a protected area. It’s a short time window for anyone to dash to safety, but even more challenging for the 120 residents of the ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran home for people with severe physical and mental disabilities, most of whom have limited to no mobility.

“It’s a very complicated situation, and these are really challenging days for us,” said Avi Wortzman, the CEO of the branch, one of four ALEH residential homes across Israel.

“We have people with cognitive and physical disabilities who are completely dependent on staff to get them to safe spaces,” he said. “These people can’t move on their own, and we need to make sure that within 45 seconds everyone is in a safe place.”

ALEH is the largest organization in Israel working with people of all ages with severe mental and physical disabilities. There are about 450 full-time residents at the four branches in Jerusalem, Gedera, Bnei Barak, and the Negev, and more than 12,000 people come for outpatient therapy.

Wortzman said that during periods of heavy rocket barrages in the south, the staff physically moves as much of the equipment, and as many residents as possible, into designated safe areas in the building, which are reinforced against rocket attacks. At night, they cram as many beds as possible into the protected areas. Some residents who need more complicated medical setups cannot move into protected areas. Each volunteer or staff member is responsible for a specific resident to ensure that no one gets left behind.

This means that when the siren sounds, most of the residents are already in the safe space, and staff must only worry about a few that are out of the room. “It’s hard to see, because usually they have a lot of space, they go out all around and are in the garden, and [during these times] everything is crowded into one space,” said Wortzman. “But the most important thing is to ensure that they are safe and secure.”

He said that staff do their best to maintain the regular schedule despite the situation. If residents have horse therapy scheduled, the therapist might bring a pony into the protected area to visit the residents.

He is also trying to juggle the needs of the staff and volunteers. Some of the international volunteers are dealing with code red alerts for the first time. The parents’ council has been coming with regular deliveries of pizza and chocolate for the staff and residents to help keep spirits high.

“We also need to make sure that staff get a chance to go out and breathe,” said Wortzman. “People feel like this is their home, they feel like these are their children. So we worry about them like our biological children.”

Wortzman said that because of their disabilities, many of the residents are not able to grasp the situation. Most of the residents at ALEH are nonverbal, though the organization utilizes a number of cutting-edge alternative communication therapies.

“We don’t know what they understand, but we think most of them don’t understand the situation,” Wortzman said. “That’s more dangerous, because if you don’t understand that when you hear the siren you need to go into the safe area, it means it’s totally on the staff to get them to the safe areas.”

Overnight on Saturday, there were more than 10 red alert sirens at the ALEH home, sending staff scrambling over and over to ensure all the residents were safe, though Wortzman said he lost track of the specific number. If the fighting continues, they might move some of the residents to other ALEH homes in the country, but that is a complicated process since many residents have very specific medical equipment needs that make transportation difficult.

“We are just hoping for quiet,” he said.