Multiple Challenges, Multiple Solutions
This article first appeared in The Jewish Press – Aug 8, 2011
In 1987, just a few months after our wedding, my husband and I moved to Israel. As a recent graduate of the Occupational Therapy Program at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York, I set out on a personal and professional journey to find my place in the world. At the time, I never imagined that my career and primary professional identity would develop around one specific healthcare facility.
But my outlook changed in 1991 when I encountered the ALEH Rehabilitation Facility for Multiply Challenged Children in Bnei Brak for the first time. I was immediately taken by its warm, singular atmosphere, and have remained a proud and active member of the professional staff ever since.
Over the past nineteen years, I have filled several roles at ALEH Bnei Brak: I began as a staff occupational therapist, later became the head of the OT department, and most recently – after completing my doctoral studies at Bar Ilan University’s Neuroscience Department – took on the role of the head of the facility’s newly instituted department of research and professional development.
Starting out as a young occupational therapist, I was inspired by both the staff and the children themselves. I recall vividly being in awe of the desire shown by the children who, despite severe physical and mental challenges and medical complications, wanted to play and made every effort to do so. Our team of therapists responded by racking our professional brains and employing every ounce of our creativity to help them reach their goals. Together with the outstanding craftsmen in our mechanical shop, we adapted toys, created distinctive sensory environments, and guided the children toward exploring and experiencing their surroundings.
I will never forget the first time we wheeled a cart full of specially designed toys into a classroom of children with severe Cerebral Palsy manifested by extreme motor and cognitive challenges. We darkened the area and presented each child with a stimulating object which was adapted to meet his or her specific visual and motor abilities. The space was illuminated with colorful dancing lights as soft background music sustained a tranquil aura. Our professional satisfaction at realizing an effective means for engaging this complex population was augmented, if not overshadowed, by the children’s glowing smiles. Such lasting impressions continue to serve as motivating forces for all involved.
As a cohesive unit, our staff is on a constant quest to discover and conceive of original modalities that stimulate the abilities of the children in a manner that brings them joy and enriches their quality of life. For some children, it is the adapted toys. For others, playful interaction in the petting zoo. Sometimes, a one-on-one therapeutic massage treatment or calming music will do the trick. Unfortunately, there are those for whom we are yet to discover the appropriate means. Nonetheless, we move forward in our persistent efforts, drawing on our clinical experience and the most advanced scientific and professional literature available, and working with the child’s family to find what works.
I think that I am most proud of the pre-vocational workshop we created that offers older children with disabilities the opportunity to implement skills they have acquired within an adapted vocational setting. They fill candy or spice bags, fashion works of art, and wrap Purim holiday packages by pressing a large switch with their hands, feet or heads. Most of us take such activities for granted, but in the context of these special workshops, these determined young men and women prove that with the right amount of assistance the multiply challenged population can be productive members of society. These days, noBar or Bat Mitzvah in our family is complete without our child volunteering in the workshop and later displaying the items that were produced there at the festivities.
In my current role, my aim is to initiate studies that address in a more empirical manner the many innovative approaches and techniques that have been developed in the fields of medicine, therapy, and education. This scientific foundation will enable us to streamline our own practices. Moreover, it is intended to help us grow from an established, cutting-edge health and education facility into a key center for the dissemination of clinical research related to the multiply challenged pediatric and young adult population. This newest stage in my ALEH career may actually make it possible to contribute to the healthcare of multiply challenged children throughout the world – in the spirit of “Ki Mi-Zion Teze Torah,” from Zion shall Torah go forth.
Reflecting on my Aliyah and early career, I am so happy that I made the decision to join the ALEH family as it has enabled me to give back to this country and the wonderful people who welcomed me with open arms so many years ago. Working with ALEH’s amazing children has also taught me the value of looking beyond one’s challenges and disabilities and focusing instead upon our abilities. This kind of sensitivity is crucial to helping a child and can make all of the difference in terms of quality of life. I try to implement this positive outlook beyond my work place in relation to my family, community and country.
Looking forward, I am hopeful that our hard work and positivity will put smiles on the faces of children across the globe, will end our preoccupation with our challenges and allow us to focus on our abilities, and will usher in a period where the Nation and State of Israel are truly a light unto the nations.
Naomi Ferziger grew up in Queens, went to high school in Brooklyn, and attended university in Manhattan. She now lives with her husband and six children in Kfar Saba. For more information about ALEH, please visit https://aleh.org/.
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