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Orr Shalom - Rescuing Children at Risk

Everyone knows the seasoned thespian's motto: "never work with children", owing to their magnetic pull on the audience's emotions. However, my husband and I were not prepared for our overwhelming, tugging-at-the-heart-strings response when we had the privilege of witnessing the darling babies and toddlers who, were playing, safely ensconced in the Orr Shalom Netanya emergency kelet house.

These youngest of children are placed here because they have been designated "at risk." As parents ourselves, we are left in awe of the numerous, selfless house mothers such as Shifra, who manages to look after her own toddler plus these often traumatized toddlers at only a moment's notice because she feels "I just have to do it". An orthodox woman, Shifra waited a very long time for her own precious child, but now she is giving back much more for what she feels is the gift she has received.

However, it must still be a daunting task, and so, providing that much needed extra pair of hands on a daily basis is a locally based, delightfully cheerful sherut leumi teenage girl. This, of course, is not the only type of help available, and a professional team of social workers and advisors is in regular contact and places the children with each foster family. The house father returns home after daily work and a certain aura of normality settles on the house.

Tea and cookies are provided by Shifra as we chat with her and her assistant in the lounge, accompanied by two Orr Shalom staff members from head office, while the children play around us. One or two attempt to interact with us and each other – the others play obliviously.

One of the children looks a little older than the others in the group, and it turns out that he is there so that he is not separated from his curly-haired toddler brother. There is gratification that he now speaks a little as, apparently, when he first arrived he was so traumatized that he would not speak at all. Gradually, I become aware that there is a wooden cot in the corner of the room with a baby tucked in it sleeping soundly.

Observing these children it soon becomes apparent that they are a true reflection of the melting pot of Israeli society. A kaleidescope of hair colors and skin tones is evidence of the multi-ethnic, multi-faith composition of the multitude of children cared for throughout the organization's homes and schemes.

The needs of children ranging from birth to age 18 and even beyond, are catered for by Orr Shalom. If it were not for the carefully orchestrated support of the organization, thousands of vulnerable children like these would slip through the net and would be lost as the ultimately proud, active and loyal participants in Israeli society that, against all the odds, they eventually become.

One such graduate - let's call him Aviram, - now 21, visited the UK last year to tell his story, and that was where I first came across the work of Orr Shalom. Aviram did not have a home in the normal sense of the word, and survived on the streets in a part of Jaffa where criminals and low-lives hung about. His older brother was already in prison and Aviram could have followed the same route but he was taken into care by Orr Shalom.

It was with a sense of self-esteem and pride that this young man gently made it clear to us how the course of his life had changed and that after his army service he was now hoping to attend university to study physics.

Aviram's story is one of the thousands that bring home to us the extent of the significance of the role that this organization has played in the lives of graduates of Orr Shalom.

The sheer numbers and the range of carefully planned support is amazing. Programs cater to 1,300 children in a range of foster programs, family group homes, adolescent girls' homes, intensive care homes, emergency foster homes and more.

In fact, there are eight emergency foster homes caring for up to five children each, from birth to age five, until more permanent foster homes can be found.

Both the emergency and the permanent fostering are conducted in as natural a family environment as possible to provide the troubled children with the normality of a natural and loving family environment whilst living with the biological children of the foster families.

The bulk of Orr Shalom's work is channeled through these foster homes with the astounding number of 560 of these selfless families caring for 850 children aged between five and 18. Special needs and handicapped children are equally cared for with 200 such children included among the 750 fostered children. The framework extends to children who are so troubled that they have acquired medical, psychiatric profiles, and 120 such children are cared for in the safety net of 70 special foster therapy family homes.

There are also 24 larger scale, therapeutic family group homes where up to 11 children can live,including 7 homes exclusively for adolescent girls who have suffered traumatic abuse. With a married couple serving as house parents and a psychologist, a social worker, an academic tutor and a counselor on the staff, the children live in a supportive therapeutic environment and are provided with a chance for a better future. These homes are located in Haifa, Holon, Or Yehuda, Abu Ghosh, Jerusalem, Mevasseret, Ma'ale Adumim, Ashkelon, Beer Sheba and Eilat.

Based on the structure of the family group home, the adolescent girls' homes respond to teenage girls in acute distress, and are therefore smaller, with never more than seven girls per home. They are located in Herzliya, Mevasseret, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Beer Sheba and Eilat.

It is heart-breaking to learn of the extent of the numbers of children who have suffered from social abuse in Israel. For some children, a last-stop safety net is needed for those expelled or excluded from other institutions to ensure that they do not end up in the only remaining options of psychiatric hospitals or closed juvenile detention centers. The most severely traumatized girls and boys, who cannot be integrated into any other program, are looked after in two intensive-care, closed, separate facilities.

The Reut and Beit Goldschmidt intensive care homes, catering to boys and girls respectively, are those stop-gap measures.

Reut is for boys aged 7 to 14, who suffer from severe emotional and behavioral disturbances as a result of extreme physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Many of the boys act in a destructive and self-destructive manner as an expression of their deep-seated mistrust and past betrayals.

To heal these boys, Orr Shalom has developed a unique method of care which is based on a high staff-child ratio to ensure that each child receives individual attention and tailored therapy on a daily basis.

Located in Mevasseret Zion, Beit Goldschmidt is a closed girls' home providing intensive care to girls aged 10 to 14 years old. All the girls have been through the deeply traumatic experience of sexual abuse which has led to a wide range of psychological and behavioral disturbances including eating disorders, promiscuity and suicidal tendencies.

At the home the girls receive continuous psychological therapy to facilitate their emotional and psychological recovery. In order to guarantee individual attention for every girl, Orr Shalom maintains an experienced professional team which helps the girls acquire the necessary skills to deal with their problems.

Both the Reut and Goldschmidt Homes provide an intimate, home-like setting and an on-site special education school, allowing the children in care to begin to heal and achieve emotional stability. They also provide a structured and supportive therapeutic environment offering care and supervision 365 days a year.

The scope of Orr Shalom's work has widened beyond residential care in two major directions. One is the development of preventative care programs for at-risk families in Eilat in order to avoid the need for children to move into foster care. These programs provide parents with a new skill set for interacting with their children, structured playtime and parenting workshops. Another provides a safety net for the children when they reach 18 – beyond the scope of government funding. Until recently, these children would have had to enter the wide world and fend for themselves after growing up in Orr Shalom's homes – a painful and bewildering experience. But now there is a new transition program supported by the AVI Fund for what Orr Shalom refers to as its "18+ graduates". (The late Avi Rosenberg cared deeply about children and admired the work of Orr Shalom with which he was familiar through his father, Orr Shalom director Nahman Rosenberg. Avi tragically lost his life in a car accident in 2000.)

The Fund helps these teens before, during and after their army service, assisting with expenses for which their parents would normally pay. Additionally, the Fund offers graduates assistance on completing their service by funding vocational training or higher education.

It is evident that the birth to adulthood cocoon of love and protection provided by Orr Shalom together with its enhanced educational and psychological support, changes these children's lives for the better forever.

Orr Shalom was established in 1980 and is Israel's largest nonprofit organization providing residential and therapeutic services to 1,300 at-risk children and youth who have been removed from their homes due to severe neglect or abuse. The children are surrounded with unconditional love plus the tools needed to break the cycle of violence, overcome their pasts and prepare for better futures as productive, independent adults.

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Case studies

Case study: David . . . After years of abuse, he is now a caring 17-year-old who is working hard on his exams

Eight year old David arrived at Orr Shalom after years of extreme neglect and abuse. At first, he was a violent and self-destructive child who bit, hit and threatened adults and children alike. He had never attended kindergarten or school and was way behind his peers academically. Orr Shalom gave David a warm, loving home where he could rely on the adults around him for the first time. Years of therapy have helped David process and overcome his past; extra tutoring in the afternoons has enabled him to close educational gaps and reach his academic potential, and enrichment activities such as soccer and guitar lessons have helped him develop his self-esteem, rebuilding his shattered confidence slowly but surely. Thanks to years of dedicated work and consistent professional care, David has developed into a wonderful, caring 17 year old who is working hard to pass his matriculation exams. At the same time David is a volunteer in the local firefighters group – his way of giving back.

Case study: Nati Elimelech . . . Sent from pillar to post, arriving at Orr Shalom 'was like entering into a bright light' 

Nati is now 31 and was one of the participants in a video of four Orr Shalom graduates (which was made four years ago and is available on YouTube). He was another child who hung about the streets "because that was my living room" he says.

Born to a dysfunctional family in Eilat, his parents were not married. His father was too young to shoulder the responsibility and left, and his mother suffered from depression. For two years from the age of ten, Nati was sent from pillar to post in a variety of temporary arrangements with friends and relatives. He was put on the waiting list for the yet to be opened Orr Shalom foster home, where he finally arrived, aged 12, "...and that's where my life started," he states matter-of-factly. "It was like entering into a bright light," he adds.

A major blow came a year later when his mother committed suicide. "She jumped off the tallest building in Eilat," he states. Meanwhile the home provided a stable environment for him, and Orr Shalom provided him with catch-up courses that brought him up to a standard that would have been impossible for him to reach otherwise.

His national service was in the Military Police from which he was selected for an officer's course. After demobilization he started a responsible job in the Menorah insurance company and attended an evening course in economics and management at the Institute of Management in Rishon LeZion.

What strikes you about Nati is his air of calmness, a direct manner and a quiet confidence – all of which would be hard to imagine his having achieved without the support of Orr Shalom 



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