By Rachely Teller, Volunteer Coordinator, ALEH in Jerusalem
(The names in this article have been changed, but the stories are true.)
“Jessica, did you see how Uriel smiled at me?” “Did you see how I made Chaya laugh?”
Rosy cheeked, sweaty and brimming with what they have just experienced, the youth proceed towards ALEH Jerusalem’s meeting room after a joint activity, for a closing discussion and feedback.
ALEH is a home, residence, vocational and leisure center and a school for children and adults with intellectual developmental disabilities, complex medical conditions and physical handicaps. During recent months alone, some 30 groups from other countries and continents visited ALEH in Jerusalem in the context of various programs: the Jewish Journey, the Israel Experience, JLE Educational and Social Centre for Young Jews, worldwide Bnei Akiva and more.
A quick calculation indicates that some 1350 youth from around the world visited ALEH during the summer, 1350 youth who had the good fortune to have an unforgettable experience at ALEH in Jerusalem, giving new proportions to their lives, enabling them to look in the mirror and appreciate what they have: “During the half hour that I danced with Sigalit, hundreds of insights passed through my mind, the type I’d never bothered thinking about. Just last week, my iPhone cracked and I got depressed, couldn’t forgive myself and didn’t want to speak to anyone. I was so angry! But now, I am really a different person, after meeting the children at ALEH, I’m different, I can feel it! I saw Sigalit, danced with her, looked into her eyes – she supposedly has nothing and she feels as if she has everything. She welcomed me with such love and she doesn’t even know me. She laughed at my nonsense, even though she has so much to cry about!”
After each meeting with a group of volunteers at ALEH, we gather to sum up. In my role as volunteer coordinator for several years now, I’ve had the good fortune to meet hundreds of groups, and I’m still moved each time: the good feeling that all the participants share as a result of having contributed is tangible in the room, there is talk of self-transformation and the inner joy of understanding, of acceptance. These groups, even on a one-time visit, experience a very simple insight – that ALEH’s children, despite their severe disabilities, also have feelings, desires, disappointments and expectations. From a one-hour activity with the most special children in the world, the “facilitators” have the opportunity to learn a lesson about their preconceptions: Who gives? Who receives? If you ask me, both sides, equally.
I feel a real mission in my position as volunteer coordinator at ALEH in Jerusalem. In addition to the amazing people that I meet daily, and the incredible insights that come up, I feel like an emissary in transforming our society for the better, and the hundreds of youth who volunteer at ALEH, and the thousands of visitors, become ambassadors of change wherever they go.
“I succeeded in singing a duet with someone who, at the beginning, I did not see as my equal. I managed to laugh along with a boy with such severe disabilities! I am special – I give, but no less, I give space, I open space in my heart!” And this is such a special understanding.
“I never dreamed that I have so much love inside me.” “It’s a shame that my mother didn’t see how I hugged sweet Miriam, completely naturally. She always says that I am so vulnerable and sensitive, and not ready for the world.”
A general statement expressed in the room – “What a wonderful feeling! What a privilege!”
Throughout the year, and especially in the summer, ALEH in Jerusalem hosts tens of groups that come for an hour of joint activity with the center’s children, in addition to ALEH’s regular volunteers. While these visits provide enjoyment, excitement and a break in routine for our children, the groups also give them an opportunity to meet people from a different culture, to experience other languages and smells, and this adds to their emotional wellbeing. Also, seeing youth coming from all over the world, and naturally hugging and giving to the children, strengthens the staff and reminds them of the added value of our residents’ abilities and huge smiles. No less important is the high-speed education that the guests receive: “In the course of one hour of activity, you succeeded in completely changing the kids in our group,” says Michal, the leader of one of the Israel Experience groups that visited last week. “Joel is always so critical, he’s really unbearable on a trip. To see him here with the children at ALEH, how he connects with them naturally and goes with the flow amazed me and, I think, him as well.”
“I can’t stop thinking about beautiful Sarah,” Lucy from Canada wrote me a week ago. Lucy is a 16-year-old girl who visited ALEH a month ago. “I am going to Israel next year for a seminary program, and I have no doubt where I’ll be spending my free time. From my short meeting with Sarah, I learned so much. Please save me a place as a regular volunteer.”
We often receive these types of letters. As the outside world becomes increasingly complicated, in ALEH Jerusalem one can find an island of sanity among the special children and adults who, in their own quiet way, radiate love to everyone, unbiasedly. ALEH’s children, with their peace and acceptance, offer an opportunity for others to feel good, and with their true internal joy (yes yes!) give each person who enters the building an extraordinary lesson in acceptance, love and giving.
“I come to ALEH every week because I feel good here,” says Amram, one of our steady volunteers. “My best friends are here.”
Let’s be open to change. Without a lot of words, let’s simply allow things to happen and come with an open heart, to visit and volunteer at ALEH in Jerusalem (or in other, similar places – special education, mentally ill, geriatric, etc.).
We are used to giving prizes to people who change the face of society. After a summer full of activity, with hundreds of visitors who came to be “scorched by love” by ALEH’s children – I leave you to decide who deserves a prize.
ALEH’s children, despite their disabilities, or perhaps because of them, have a huge influence on how our society looks. ALEH’s residents have strength – they are changing those around them into better, more attentive and more accepting people.