Healthy Living Program Gives Israeli Youth a Fresh Start

April 3, 2013


Two years ago, Anat, 19, was in the midst of a deep personal crisis. Born and raised in a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community in Jerusalem, she was finishing school and looking ahead at the next chapter of her life—one that would imminently lead to marriage and children.

“I was feeling insecure, lonely, and weak. I did not know who I was, where I belonged, and what I wanted to do next with my life,” she recalls. She turned to food and overeating for comfort.

Anat gained weight rapidly, while her spirits and self-confidence spiraled further downward. That’s when her mom spotted an ad in the local Haredi paper, promoting a health course with a volunteer component to empower young women to become agents of change in their community. Knowing her daughter needed help, Anat’s mom encouraged her to apply.

That’s how Anat came to JDC’s Nutrition Enrichment and Healthy Living Program.

Implemented through a broad range of groups across Israel—including the ultra-Orthodox, Russian-speaking and Ethiopian immigrants, and the special needs population—JDC’s innovative program model operates through three complementary tracks: Personal Empowerment and Volunteerism, Education and Awareness, and Community Empowerment.

Anat joined the Personal Empowerment and Volunteerism track and soon met a classroom full of Haredi girls learning about health and nutrition, and training to become community “Health Ambassadors.” Like Anat, these young women had grown up in poor communities, and were trying to make up for bad nutrition habits, lack of health awareness, and a stark shortage of physical activity.

Their classroom included a panoply of the issues that Healthy Living is tackling across Israel. Over 25% of Israeli children are overweight. The health situation is especially dire for an estimated 15% of Israeli children who are considered “at-risk”—children in Israel’s social and geographic periphery, including religious and ethnic minorities, immigrant populations, children from impoverished homes, and those with special needs.

The particular track of Healthy Living that Anat joined trains participants to serve as agents of health and change in their communities—in daycares, kindergartens, camps, community centers, and old age homes. The initiative not only provides the young women with knowledge that encourages them to adopt a healthy lifestyle, it also empowers them to take control of their physical and emotional well-being, and to become leaders in their communities. After completing their training, the volunteers go out into their communities and offer education on various aspects of nutrition and physical activity, promoting broad exposure to preventative self-care.

“The lessons enabled me to deal with my feelings, experiences, and difficulties in a safe and supportive group. I felt openness, acceptance, and familiarity. I learned a lot and started to feel personally empowered. Eventually, I overcame my crisis,” Anat explains.

Anat’s program utilized drama as a learning tool and a vehicle for self-expression, giving the girls a creative outlet as well as another way to tackle their individual issues. They loved using theatrics and humor to depict the importance of being healthy and taking care of their bodies, and were eager to utilize the alternative teaching method as “Health Ambassadors” to peers and friends.

Shortly after completing the program, Anat got married. She also began implementing her new skills as a volunteer at a local school, a summer camp for Bukharan children in need, and adult classes in the Romema community.

Soon, the volunteering led to a job as an aide in a kindergarten for children with special needs.

“I am proud to be a married woman who brings home an income and has financial independence,” Anat beams. “When I was applying for this job, I was competing against women with degrees in special education, but I got it because of the unique knowledge and skills I learned through the program. The tools I have received help me deal with these children, and promote healthy eating using drama and stories throughout my community, too.”

Today Anat is excited to be starting her family. “My home also changed since my participation in the program. I make sure the food we eat is nutritious, and I feel healthy and alive!”

In the 10 years since its inception, the Nutrition Enrichment and Healthy Living Program has grown to include health-promoting activities in 22 cities across Israel, reaching over 160,000 children, parents, and professionals. The Health Ambassadors program Anat took part in today includes approximately 350 teens and 250 adult volunteers.

With a spectrum of programs promoting proper nutrition, dental care, and regular exercise, this initiative’s messages are transforming Israeli society one person at a time. As children and parents gain the tools they need to assume responsibility for their own health, they also strengthen their bonds with family, peers and the community at large.

Anat attributes her personal transformation to Healthy Living proudly: “This program changed me in so many ways and on so many levels. It has opened a window to a new life for me.”

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