Tzipi Bertman was living in Israel and married for only 15 months when her life suddenly turned upside down.
Like all new mothers, she had visions of what life would be like with a new baby, but finding out that her infant daughter had Down syndrome meant taking things in a different direction.
It wasn’t all that long until the scene replayed itself again, only this time with a son. As the mother of two children with Down syndrome, Tzipi found herself quickly learning the ropes, speaking extensively with medical professionals, social workers and others to best understand her options. Because her daughter was mainstreamed into a regular gan with a shadow, while her son is going the special education route, Tzipi has had more experience than most and over time she began meeting informally with other parents to help them navigate the twisting and turning paths of their journeys.
Tzipi’s life headed down another unexpected path when she was asked to head a program designed for babies up to eighteen months old with developmental delays, Down syndrome and other disabilities providing a comprehensive range of high quality early intervention services. Called Gedelim Beyachad, it was a division of Petachya, Israel’s largest network of early childhood special education centers, which offers a wide array of educational and therapeutic services to children ages six months and up.
The idea is to take advantage of the critical early months of development to maximize results, and parents are encouraged to reach out as soon as they become aware of a problem. Everyone understands that parents are typically emotional and overwhelmed after receiving a difficult diagnosis.
“I recently sat with parents for three hours and they kept telling me that it was just so hard,” recalls Tzipi. “I have been in that spot and I understand that feeling as if the sky is falling down on you. I have had parents tell me that they felt like they were sitting shiva for the child they wanted to have and it is important to have someone who can understand that.”
Tzipi spends hours with parents, holding hands and offering both solace and a listening ear.
“Parents don’t want someone to tell them that everything will be okay, because it really isn’t. What we can do is tell them that it will take time, but they will be able to manage, and that we will be there to help them and that does give them comfort.”
Gedelim Beyachad is founded on the principle that there is a small window of opportunity to be seized that can have a lifelong positive impact, and its multilingual staff helps parents through diagnosis and appropriate testing to map out the best treatment options. Serving families in Jerusalem and surrounding areas, it is located in the Sanhedria section of Jerusalem, and offers assessments, diagnoses, medical consultations, on-site occupational, speech and music therapies and referrals. The program also provides support services to parents through family events, lectures, seminars and retreats, creating an invaluable peer network.
Tzipi recalls the story of a 14-month-old baby whose development appeared to be lagging but whose consultation with a neurologist showed that he did not qualify for Gedelim Beyachad’s special education kindergarten program. She advised the child’s mother to wait a short while before coming in for an evaluation and when the time arrived, it was clear that the baby was not progressing normally and that the gap between him and other children his age was widening.
“We wrote up a report that we sent to the neurologist who knows our staff and he said if we felt that services were needed, he would do another evaluation,” she says, “We helped the mother fill out all of the necessary forms and when she left she felt like her whole life would be easier and that her son would get the right treatment so that one day he could be mainstreamed into a regular class.”
Gedelim Beyachad is just one of Petachya’s many inclusive programs which include language oriented kindergarten, preschool for the developmentally delayed, mainstreaming classes, aftercare, rehabilitative day care and a child development clinic. While Petachya has long been privately funded, its ever increasing network of services, range of operations, new treatment programs and growing number of facilities has brought with it a need for public support so that it can continue providing children with the tools to thrive.
“Our tradition teaches us the sacred value of saving one life, something that is akin to saving an entire world,” says Tzipi. “At Petachya, we save one life a day, thousands of times over.”
For more information, visit Petachya online at www.petachya.org.il/en.