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Twenty-three-year-old Tal stops putting green circle stickers on the picture he’s making for Israeli soldiers in Gaza. He grunts in a friendly way and holds out his hand in greeting. Then he begins to flip clumsily through the pamphlets full of pictures of ALEH, interest making his dark eyes sparkle. Each time he recognizes a fellow resident, he makes another low, throaty sound of pleasure. A pale young woman, her hair braided intricately, sits very quietly, absorbing the positive energy around her. It’s summer camp at ALEH Jerusalem – just like everywhere else in Israel.

ALEH was founded in 1982 by parents who needed a solution for their severely disabled children. It started off in a small apartment with three or four children. Today, with centers in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Gedera and the Negev, ALEH is Israel’s largest network of residential facilities for children with severe cognitive and physical disabilities. ALEH currently cares for 650 children. Some of the residents were born disabled and suffer from cerebral palsy or genetic disorders such as Tay-Sachs, Canavan disease and Rett syndrome. Some were once healthy, but became disabled after a bad fall, drowning or choking: a child fell into a bucket of water while her mother washed the floor, a boy fell asleep snuggled into the sleeve of his grandfather’s coat in the back of the car. In addition to these full-time residents, ALEH provides quality outpatient care for thousands of disabled children who live at home but need therapies, special education and activities. ALEH’s services are also available to accident victims who need rehabilitation and members of the general population who can benefit from its services. Its doors are open to religious, secular and non-Jewish people – in ALEH Negev, severely disabled adults, some in their sixties, are enjoying a productive life. ALEH: the Hebrew word means leaf and also go up because we all have the potential to grow.

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Reaching Every Child

In the different areas of the home, the children are going through their morning routine. Tiny, twelve-year-old Efrat shuffles past, clutching a hula-hoop in one hand and holding on to her therapist with the other. A rare chromosomal disease has stunted her growth. A young boy lies on a mattress wearing a vest that sends vibrations through his chest. Ten minutes of these vibrations are enough to stimulate him to cough, ensuring that his lungs remain phlegm-free. In another room, Suri is being helped into a backstander, a piece of equipment that helps her stand upright so her lungs can expand. “Every piece of equipment comes standardized and here we personalize it,” explains Dov Hirth, marketing and development manager at ALEH. Yossi, seated upright in his wheelchair, is crying. His sobs express his distress far better than words ever could. “He’s just come back from his walk and he doesn’t want it to end,” explains one of the therapists. Shira, her nails painted a pretty pink, sits patiently, staring into space. I compliment her style, trying to make her smile, but no luck. Then a volunteer whispers in her ear. Her eyes light up and she smiles. I wonder why. “I made a funny noise in her ear and she likes it,” the volunteer explains. That’s when I realize that communication at ALEH doesn’t mean speech. Although Tal is by far the most communicative resident, the staff is determined to find a way to connect to each child. “It took a while to find the way to connect to Shira,” says Dov Hirth, who has been greeting every child with his or her name, “and then we discovered that she loves bongos. Now she has regular music therapy sessions that really bring out her personality.”

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Rhona Lewis made aliyah more than 20 years ago from Kenya and is now living in Beit Shemesh. A writer and journalist who contributes frequently to The Jewish Press’s Olam Yehudi magazine, she divides her time between her family and her work.