On a visit to ALEH in the summer of 2014, I watched a tiny, twelve-year-old girl, whose growth has been stunted by a rare chromosomal disease, shuffle past me, clutching a hula-hoop in one hand and holding on to her therapist with the other. Six months later, I watched with delight as Ethiopian police investigator Zaloo Adisu gently encouraged the same girl to push her walker along the corridor. Obviously happy, she was walking much better. At ALEH, even the wildest dreams come true. That’s how it came about that Israeli police officers trained for two hours a week for over six months with these special needs children in preparation for the Jerusalem Marathon held on March 15.
At ALEH the Twain Meet
The Jerusalem Marathon, held for the first time in 2011, attracts over 15,000 runners from over 50 countries. The marathon offers six different routes including an 800-meter community race designed to raise awareness and encourage inclusion of different segments of society. This year, the 5,000 participants who joined the community race included the Israeli police who teamed up with children from ALEH. ALEH was founded in 1982 by parents who needed a solution for their severely disabled children. Today, with centers in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Gedera and the Negev, it is Israel’s largest network of residential facilities for children with severe cognitive and physical disabilities.
It all began when physical therapist Rut David decided that the children in ALEH should take part in the Jerusalem Marathon. When the sister of one of the residents, a police officer, decided that the police should become involved with ALEH, the pieces clicked together and the match was made. “The secret behind ALEH is that every employee with a good idea feels motivated to push it through,” says Keesing.
“Organizing an outing for ALEH residents is a major undertaking,” says Dov Hirth, a member of ALEH’s marketing and development team. “We need to have ambulances, medical staff and volunteers on hand. We need to figure out how long each child can be outside and take into account the medical care he or she will need there.” Supporters of ALEH have been taking part in the Jerusalem Marathon since its inception. Last year, however, even the residents participated. This year, thanks to the care and compassion of the Israel police officers, a higher number of residents were able to participate. “The extra manpower made it possible for us to set up about twenty partners,” says Rivki Keesing, occupational therapist and Director of Research and Academia at ALEH.
Before the actual training began, the officers had to learn the time-consuming technical details involved in getting the children ready to walk. Some residents, like Or, are strapped into a large walker; some use scooter-like equipment; others are strapped together with their volunteer in a special walking harness so that every step taken by an officer is actually taken by the child. Next, the officers were taught how to communicate with the children. “Although the children are non-verbal, we can communicate through the blink of an eye or the clap of a hand,” says Keesing. Sometimes symbols are used: When Adisu shows her charge a little plastic shoe she knows it’s time for a training session.
Training Full Swing
On my visit in February, the Sunday morning training session was in full swing in the wide, colorful corridors of ALEH. Keesing, standing nearby, points out that the police officers who aren’t in uniform are here on their time off. Some officers postponed their vacation in order to be available for the marathon. “Those who have come from work will have to make up the time later on,” she says. Adisu confirms this and then adds, “Somehow, I’ve never found that I have a greater number of files to go through when I eventually get to my office!” Keesing points out that professionally tracking the progress of the children is essential. “We use an application to measure the speed, time and distance of the children,” says Keesing. “One of our children was covering a hundred meters in an hour. Together with his police officer, he’s made great progress.”
“Let’s go. One more,” Officer Oren Sasson gently encourages his charge, a tall teenaged boy who is leaning heavily on his walker. “He usually walks better but he prefers to walk outdoors,” Sasson explains without taking his eyes off his partner. “Until the sun comes out, we’re inside and it’s hard for him.” Sometimes, Sasson moves the boy’s feet one in front of the other; other times, he pulls the walker forward. “We’re here to motivate the children,” he says. “That’s why we try to come in uniform. The children are excited by our presence.” Asked if it’s difficult to put aside the natural assertiveness of a policeman, Sasson, who is busy wiping his child’s face, smiles and says, “The police force is a mitzvah factory. This is one more facet.”
A little further on, Officer Nir Bar Adon is walking with his charge, a seven-year-old boy, strapped to his waist. “His left side functions normally,” Bar Adon explains, “but he needs my help with his right side.” I ask if the harness strains Bar Adon’s back. “That’s not important,” Bar Adon answers shortly. He bends forward to talk to his partner and then puts out his hand encouraging the little boy to “talk” back by giving him five. “We’re here to give to the children and to do something meaningful beyond our jobs,” Bar Adon says. “By giving to the children, we’re giving to ourselves. Besides that, it’s a lot of fun!”
It’s easy to see that every officer is completely dedicated to the child in his care. Keesing points to an officer who is training with a little girl. “We had decided that since the girl isn’t an ALEH resident and lives outside Jerusalem, it would be impossible for her to participate because we simply wouldn’t be able to get her to the start of the race on time,” says Keesing. “But the officer was drawn to her. He insisted that he wanted to train with her and that he would personally fetch her from her home on the morning of the race.”
Investigator Adisu stops her training session to give Efrat, who is tired, a short break. “When she cries, I almost cry,” she admits. Adisu, who was the first officer to sign up for the program, has been volunteering since she was fifteen years old. “Although it’s emotionally difficult to see the suffering, helping out makes me happy,” Adisu says. “If I have a meeting and I can’t make the training session, I feel an emptiness inside.” Then she adds, “So many people are wary of the police. But we aren’t here only to catch the lawbreakers. We’re here to help. And this is one way of showing the public that we care.” Indeed, the care and compassion that whirls through ALEH at the training session makes it impossible to imagine that I’m surrounded by police officers who are trained to be tough.
The Race is Run
In follow-up conversations after the marathon was run, the police officers spoke about the excitement and pure joy that pulsed through the participants and the crowds on the cool, sun-filled morning. “My wife, who came as a spectator, was amazed at the level of excitement and togetherness that she felt at the event,” says Officer Sasson. “For us, as participants, it was also tremendously satisfying and fulfilling. Although my charge was initially disturbed by the crowds, the noise and the balloons, he managed to walk the entire track. I knew he was having a great time.”
Officer Adisu echoes Sasson’s sentiments. “My charge was a little overwhelmed at the onset,” she says. “So we started off using a wheelchair, then graduated to a walker and finally, with the help of her therapist, who insisted that after the months of training, my little girl was capable of walking, we walked the remaining part of the track – much to her parents’ delight.”
Says Officer Bar Adon, “The Marathon was exciting not only for the participants, but also for the spectators who enjoyed watching police officers interacting so positively with ALEH’s special needs residents. My charge walked the entire track like a hero. We could see that he was enjoying every minute. We’re all grateful that we could take part in such a meaningful event. The opportunity to give in such a way doesn’t present itself to everyone,” he says. The most telling comment comes when he adds, “We have every intention of keeping up our connection with the children.”