Crossing the Divide to Volunteer at ALEH

Crossing the Divide to Volunteer at ALEH

Monday, June 9th, 2014


May 5, 2014 By Peter-Paul van Broekhuizen

“Be yourself, work from the heart and great things will happen.”

ALEH has been privileged to host many workers, volunteers and visitors from all over the world. Indeed – ALEH’s global family includes friends and supporters from 50 countries! We are always pleased to welcome people from different spheres in life, all with different backgrounds, cultures and languages. And sometimes, it is those individuals from far away who leave the strongest impact.

Peter-Paul van Broekhuizen was born in the Netherlands. With a background in gardening, plant production and forestry, he accrued practical experience working with the Dutch agricultural ministry department Plant Protection Service. But his real passion was teaching agriculture – spending a great deal of time creating individual programs for each student, working to cultivate and nurture children as well as the earth. After moving to Switzerland with his family, Peter became more interested in exploring his Jewish roots (he was given to understand that he had a Jewish grandfather who was murdered in Buchenwald). In 2013 he visited Israel, and immediately felt at home in the country, despite the language barriers.

Wanting to make a real difference, and to really get to know the land and the people, Peter asked a friend who had made Aliyah for a recommendation – and the name ALEH immediately came up. After researching the organization, Peter reached out to the Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran Rehabilitation Village in the south of Israel, asking whether he could come stay at the village as a volunteer. The answer was a resounding YES! – and Peter’s dream became a reality.

For the next five weeks, Peter became an indispensable part of the ALEH family, and was warmly accepted by all the people who work there. He lived in a small unit in nearby Ofakim, staying with Oshrat – one of the caregivers who works at the village – who took care to provide him with tasty Moroccan food and treats. Other weekends and holidays, Peter was hosted by many other staffers – including Masada Sekely – Director of Aleh Negev. He recalls how privileged he felt to go to the synagogue for the first time on the eve of Passover, accompanied by Masada’s father, and how spiritually uplifted he felt by the whole experience. Despite understanding none of the prayers, Peter said he understood the meaning behind the words.

That served him well at Aleh Negev, where he worked together with so many others towards a shared goal, in a way that transcended language.

The experience is best summed up in Peter’s own words [the following is an approximate translation]

This is what I noticed through all the time that I volunteered at Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran. It is a unique place because the way it was built. Not only is it secure and aesthetically beautiful, equipped with facilities designed for the diverse special needs of its population, but the staff – everyone from the gardener to the most senior administration – operate as one big family. It is their devotion and care that have made Aleh Negev the amazing place it is today.

Throughout my volunteerism, I saw that there were 2 principles underlying the work ethic of the village: enabling the highest quality of life for residents, and encouraging them to grow and develop to their fullest potential. These are exactly the principles that I have always believed in, and what I tried to do while I was a volunteer.

I worked in a home with 21 young men who were physically and cognitively disabled. I helped them in many tasks of daily living – eating, accompanying them to therapies, taking walks in the gardens, and simply sitting and communicating with them. I felt as though I am fulfilling the role of father, helping ‘my children’ wherever it was needed the most. Because of the relationship and the close bonds that were formed, I was able to draw them out to be more active, to colour or play games, and their efforts were rewarded with hugs and loving words of encouragement.

Masada, Aleh Negev’s director, told me to “do whatever your heart tells you – and that will be the right thing.” And that is what I did. When there was music – I danced – even though I would normally feel a sense of embarrassment. But my heart told me that, for the residents, this was the right thing to do. And my heart was right – they joined me in dancing, in their own special way.

I learned that a great deal of patience is required to work with the residents. But at Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran, there is all the time in the world to keep trying. If you do not succeed today, you can try tomorrow – and maybe you will succeed then. I saw this in my work with C. – who refused to put on shoes, despite the efforts of staff day after day. Then one morning, I noticed that C. was not sitting at the table for lunch; instead, he was off on the side, attempting to put on his sandals – on his own! For me, this was the greatest reward, and proof that efforts and patience can pay off.

A volunteer must use his mind, his eyes and his heart, because the residents cannot speak in the usual way. You can understand them by observing even the smallest things, by watching their behavior, how they move their hands and feet, and by the expression in their eyes. Many times my interpretation was incorrect, so I had to think again or try again in another way or persevere in the same way – and to try and receive feedback that they could give me.

I learned a great deal from my stay in the village, from the staff and the residents alike. For example, one day I sat with D. and drew a tree and D. said ‘etz’ [tree, in Hebrew]. In amazement, I drew a shoe, and asked D. what it was – and D. responded! The same with a sun, flower, fish – D. was able to tell me in Hebrew what it was that I had drawn. So in this way, he helped me as well! It is amazing to think that these special needs residents, who are so limited, have become my teachers, helping me to master a new language!

The greatest thing I am taking with me from my time here is the feeling of belonging, of being part of a family. The residents and staff all gave me this feeling. Sometimes in words [‘thank you’, good day’], and sometimes through a smile. The best feeling is being yourself and being accepted by everyone. You don’t always have the luxury in your personal life to be you – sometimes you must play a role. But with these special residents, who are not capable of falsehoods or of putting up a false front, you have to be truly yourself. Masada said to me: “Be yourself, work from the heart and great things will happen.” That is what happened, and it is almost impossible to describe in words – but the feeling is very powerful.

If I have to summarize in one sentence: I have not yet departed, and already I am planning to return!!

We are all so grateful to peter, and we are also counting the days till he can return to his family at Aleh negev-Nahalat Eran.