In Israel, Using Volunteerism To Strengthen Families

February 10, 2015


The young children had never met their “Saba” or “Savta” before last week’s Tu B’Shvat celebration, but the atmosphere inside the Netanya nursing home felt like a family reunion.

Eleven families had come with their children, ages five to seven, to this Israeli city of about 185,000 a half-hour north of Tel Aviv. To celebrate the Jewish holiday that is similar to Arbor Day, the families and the nursing home residents they were paired with would decorate planters with stickers and drawings and plant the seed of sh’tilim, small plants.

“It is important to us that residents here have a connection with the community. Sometimes they feel very alienated and separate,” said Idit, a social worker at the nursing home. “This project is very important because these kids get to see a large portion of our population who often gets forgotten about, as well as contribute to their happiness.”

For the residents of the nursing home, the Tu B’Shvat event was a rare and exciting opportunity for intergenerational connection.

“I got a present from a young girl,” one resident said, beaming. “She colored this plant for me and gave it to me to keep.”

But though the elderly residents of the Netanya facility gained much from the program, it was actually designed around its youngest participants — as a means of fostering parent-child interaction and a volunteer spirit for at-risk children and their families.

Around 10,000 families each year who are coping with financial and family challenges receive welfare services to help improve their situations. These families generally have few opportunities to give back, help others, and experience the satisfaction of contributing to their communities. JDC’s new Family Volunteerism program approaches the act of volunteering as a tool to strengthen Israeli families.

The program is an initiative of JDC’s strategic partnership Ashalim, the Association for Planning & Development of Services for Children and Youth at Risk & Their Families — founded by JDC, the Government of Israel, and UJA-Federation of New York.

Ashalim supports and protects children, youth, and young adults at risk. Other programs include formal education initiatives, youth entrepreneurship and employment programming, alternative learning spaces, community-building models, and programs that help engender safe home environments and healthy relationships between parents and children.

The Family Volunteerism program began about five years ago when JDC professionals from the AMEN youth volunteering program thought about adapting the volunteering concept for families. They were soon joined by the Alon Group to start the first family volunteering program in Israel.

What came next was a pilot program in seven locations, largely peripheral communities outside the center of the country. It targets children from families at risk and provides the framework for them to volunteer in their communities.

The program fit like a glove for the social services in Netanya. Administrators in this office realized children in the Moadoniot (the social services after-school clubhouse) were being taught a number of practical skills — nutrition, manners, and more — but parents were not being included in the process.

The program is steadily growing. A Chanukah event in Netanya attracted just one family, while a program for students of an at-risk girls’ boarding school last month drew five families. The Tu B’Shvat activity, with 11 families, represents a major increase, said Orit, a social worker and early childhood specialist who works with the Moadoniot.

“We tell both the children and their parents ‘we believe in you,’ and when someone tells you they believe in you, you want to prove them right,” she said. “This project tells them that they, too, can give. Even those who have almost nothing have something to give.”

Orit related the story of a woman in severe financial straits.

She came to the Tu B’Shvat event to “show her kids and herself she is strong,” Orit said.

“Now, she can go home tonight and feel that she has given,” she said. “We believe this will make her a better mother. If she can go and give to others, then she can give to her children as well.”

And for six-year-old volunteer Talel, the joy inherent in the event is simple. When asked if she gets anything in return for volunteering, she looked up and gave a simple answer.

“We get to make them happy,” she said.

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