From where does the strength come?

How two dedicated people made dreams they never dared to dream come true. Inspiration for all of us in the pandemic-caused isolation we never imagined in our wildest dreams.

Rochel Sylvetsky

OpEds The Shalva Band performing
The Shalva Band performing
]Yonatan Zindel Flash 90

It doesn't come from the outside. It is inside us. Hashem's breath of life as he created us in His image provides us with reserves of resilience, creativity, perseverance and hope. Some of us need help to find them, and some of us, gifted with the ability and drive to make good things happen, do so of their own volition.

We are being tested severely now, perhaps stumbling, but with His help, we will rise to our feet once again, we will meet the challenge. This surreal pandemic will pass, and then we must try hard to continue appreciating the simple joys of ordinary days: shuls filled with people, the sound of joint prayer, Sifrei Torah lovingly held and kissed in those shuls, seeing the family in non-Zoom real life…and everything else we have put on hold for the present.

Chances are that new chessed projects and educational innovations will emerge, either jumpstarted, planned or only dreamed of in response to the situation. These will be projects to fill lacunae we did not realize existed or did not think could be filled.

If that is the case, we can take a cue from a couple whose lives changed forever years ago, who could not turn the clock back to the way it was before a faulty vaccination irrevocably brain-damaged Yossi, their healthy infant –  a young man and woman who found the strength to change the world after their own crashed around them.                                  

Little Yossi, suddenly blind and deaf, eventually learned to communicate much as Helen Keller did, and his mother Malkie decided she must be faithful to what she had promised to do if that ever happened. She, who knew from experience what was lacking, would provide the exhausted, stressed parents of special children with a chance to breathe. She would create a system of afternoon care on which they could rely.

And that promise became a reality. After starting in 1990 in an apartment where a small number of specially challenged children could come after school, Kalman and Malkie Samuels' sorely needed Shalva project –filling a lacuna in caring for special children - evolved into an enchanted kingdom in Jerusalem's Bayit Vegan neighborhood where everything that can help a challenged child and his family is to be found, where the butterfly mobile hanging from the entrance ceiling symbolizes - to me - how two dedicated people made dreams they never dreamed come true. The title of the book which tells the story in Kalman's own words, "Dreams never Dreamed," inspiringly encapsulates their efforts.

Dreams Never Dreamed
INN:Koren

(To order in Israel: https://korenpub.co.il/products/dreams-never-dreamed  In USA:  https://korenpub.com/products/dreams-never-dreamed)

First there was a commitment that led to making an initial dream come true and this led to another and another and another …fluttering, colorful, gentle butterfly wings that climbed higher and higher.

I found myself unable to find the words to do justice to the book's page turning story of ceaseless, dedicated hard work laced with miracles, a story that comes alive as the reader goes from step to step with no final goal in sight because the goalposts keep on being moved - so I decided to interview the writer. His words do that infinitely better than I can, but I must add that only by actually reading the book can one enter the atmosphere of this wonderful mifal chaim – a beautiful hard-to-translate Hebrew expression for Life's Work.

Be warned - this book may turn you into a member of the greater, involved Shalva family. I know that my several visits to the Center over the past few years, whether to meet a friend in the cafeteria, see an Emunah sponsored show that included invitations to the teen Shalva population, family events held in the building and a granddaughter doing National Service there conquered my heart.

Mr. Samuels, my introductory words aside, I must ask you -  where did you get the koach? You had your own challenging child, you had a growing family to support, yet you were indefatigable in raising funds to make Shalva happen and continue to succeed while your unbeatable wife saw to it that everything was more than perfectly executed.

Samuels: Yes, there were endless difficulties. Even when we grew so much that we needed a large facility, and finally got land allocated by the city, well-connected neighbors tried to stop the project, took us to court and delayed us over and over.

Where did I get the strength, the koach to go on? You get the koach because you understand the material, I am raising a child with a disability.  Obviously, raising children always needs koach, but a child with disabilities needs immeasurably more.

The passion comes from experience. The koach comes from knowing what other people are going through and it comes from G-d, hakadosh baruch hu noten koach.

What is the difference between your role and Malkie's?

Samuels: The passion is the same but mine is played out in practical aspects – fundraising, for example - and Malkie's in programs and the physical conditions – everything starts with her ideas and succeeds because she sticks to them. She has been there day by day from the start, but for years I continued my job working in the computer field. Somehow I just plodded along. This is proof that G-d has a great sense of humor.

We started with 6 children and we have gone to places never fathomed.

Tell us about the Shalva children

Samuels: Each child is his own world, the differences are great. The common denominator is that there is a cognitive disability. Yossi was 11 months old when he got the shot that changed our lives.  

Who works with the children?

Samuels: We started with my wife, myself and two workers. Now we have 450 employees, 1000 children coming in the doors each day, from infants on.  Every night of the week, a different group of children sleeps over.

We have professionals in every area of operation plus 400 volunteers each of whom comes once or twice a week. There are 70 passionately dedicated national service young women, wonderful young women, all heart.  They enable the running of the place. Having only professional paid staff would be impossible to sustain.

Shalva has become a drawing card. At least 400 National Service  young women try for our 70 places.

And the budget for all this?

Samuels: We have a $17 m. budget, of which $6m. has to be raised ourselves and that is very challenging.

Shalva is open to all and financial ability is not a factor. After the first decade, the government began to help through the welfare department. Today, two ministries, Education and Welfare, take care of 38% or so of our budget. We try to generate funds from our facilities, the cafe, renting out a hall for events, our auditorium for performances as well as fundraising.

Upkeep costs a great deal because we invest in maintenance and cleanliness. That is so critical for the self respect of the staff, parents, siblings, all of us.

How would you describe the Shalva atmosphere?

Samuels: People always talk about love at Shalva. The primary movers in this respect are the National Service volunteers. There are also about 7 wonderful male 'shin shinim'- army age young men from moshavim -  who volunteer for a year before IDF service.

Describe a day at Shalva:

Samuels: Come and see for yourself. You have to get here at 8 am and before you get to the front entrance you will see about 250 children from birth age to 6 leaving their transportatiion vehicles.

You can imagine that we need an enormous number of car seats!

Walk in the front door to the 3 story atrium and your eye will be caught by the mobile of butterflies. People do not expect that.  

The building looks like corporate headquarters. It changes the regular person's view of special education.

Why butterflies?

Samuels: Butterflies have to be allowed to work at their own pace, they start in a cocoon, and if you give them the right environment, eventually they fly. This is Malkie's outlook and this is the Shalva motif.

How does the day continue?

Samuels: Someone welcomes each child individually, calls out his or her name - Yankel, Leah  Erez…! Hello! and brings them to the 3 floors of classes on the 5th, 6th and 7th floors.

You will also see mothers coming with their babies. We have 22 different mothers and their babies every day of the week from all over the country, who join us for our Me and My Mommy program. This holistic program makes mother the focus.  Each mother, from every background, is taught how to work with her chlld at home by therapists, and gains community with other mothers over coffee and cake.

One floor below the entrance is the sports area with semi-Olympic pool, warmed therapy pool, gym, fitness center. You will see children going down to the pools from 8:30 to 1. 

At 2 in the afternoon, you will see babies going out to play in the play areas outside and 270 school age children aged 6 to 21 coming to spend the afternoon at Shalva -  brought straight from their schools. This is a 5 day a week lifesaver. Parents send their child to school at 7:30 and straight on to Shalva till 6:30pm, when they come home happy and satisfied. It means parents can work, study, siblings can have parents who give them attention.

Every enrolled school child comes every day and can sleep over once a week.

This strikes a balance between an institution and home.

What kind of other help is offered?

Samuels: In addition to the above, there is therapy for different groups of people. The siblings support group is crucial – a 16 year old girl once said that they were a family group of 5 and then her mother gave birth and they became a family of one because the special needs child must always come first. That made me understand Shalva's mission in a new way - to restore them, to make them a family of 6 again.  The special child enrolled in our program becomes a delightful part of their lives because they have breathing space.

On Shabbat there can be 60-65 kids staying over, with staff and volunteers, altogether 135 people. It rocks.  And parents can have an intimate Shabbat with their other children while assured that their special child is in loving, competent hands. 

The beauty of these programs is that there is a schedule and parents can plan accordingly, something these parents could not do before. For example, a family knows that every Monday night they are off except for holidays and the intermediate days of holidays, Chol Hamoed. It puts order into the family's life.

This is, of course, during the school year. In the summer, we run day camps and an 8 day sleep-away camp. This means the family can go on vacation.

What guides you?

Samuels: It isn't easy. The challenge to do the best we can for the children, the challenge of helping the families, the challenge of raising the funds to do so.

But - You have to do what you have to do and what you believe in.

This is true even in things that you might not think about consciously– that is, until they are missing. Years ago, a visitor who managed a facility for people with disabilities came from the USA. He was overwhelmed and said he would take back amazing things, but that he could never keep the facility he ran as clean as ours. Malkie responded that this is not really the case - you could keep it clean, she said, but it is hard to put your hand in your pocket for maintenance. It all depends how important it is to you. Cleanliness is a message. It is respect for man, kvodo shel adam.

It also costs money.

Has Shalva had an impact outside the center?

Samuels: The global impact is immense. We did not plan on that, we concentrate on helping our children, but it just happened. We have about 160,000 visitors yearly from all over the world. They all come away with their mouths open. They won't do all of what we do, but they realize they can paint the walls in happy  colors, hang up drawings and learn to do bigger things.

The Shalva band has had tremendous impact.  It is a symbol of empowerment. We don't focus on disabilities, we empower our youngsters to the best of our ability and theirs. Millions saw them in Europe. BBC came out with an article saying that this was the most incredible part of the Eurovision and they had millions of views and thousands of positive talkbacks.

President Trump had the Shalva band. The White House put it on Facebook and millions more saw it.

That is the point, to change awareness, force people to rethink disability.

Why did you write the book?

Samuels:  The most important thing to understand is that the reason I wrote it was not to succeed in selling books. It was written over years and the goal was opening people's eyes to disability, for parents, both religious and non-observant, to stand tall and be proud.  

This is your child, we say, never be self conscious.

It's a huge choice parents make. I do support groups and always share the thought that if you are self conscious of the child it is conveyed to your other children and it will impact them. If you are proud of every child, it doesn't alter your love and pride if they are not good in everything.  If you are proud of your child with a disability, that goes through to the other siblings.

Your problem is not the child with the disability. He is a challenge but the others are your problem and you have to think about how you impact their lives.

For Malkie and I - and for our dedicated staff and the Shalva family - being able to do this work or enabling this work is a tremendous gift from G-d.

Are you in contact with the children during the corona pandemic?

The center, naturally, is closed, but Shalva staff and volunteers are doing all they can to support families with children with disabilities who are now at home under enormously difficult circumstances. The National Service volunteers contact the children through ZOOM meetings or telephone for those families who do not have internet.

In addition, the Shalva@ Home project was launched on, March 26, 2020, to create a virtual forum through which parents and caregivers of children with disabilities can receive support and knowledge for navigating the complexities of caring for their child with disabilities under conditions of quarantine and isolation. Shalva@ Home was set-up quickly in order to provide an immediate support system. It is intended not only for Shalva’s families but for all families of children with disabilities in Israel and around the world who have become solely responsible for their children’s care due to the temporary closures of most rehabilitative frameworks for children with disabilities.

*****

As our conversation ends, I decide to add something that Kalman Samuels, in his humility, would never say: In addition to reading the fascinating story of how this wonderful project came about and functions today, one of the most impressive things in the book is how Kalman and Malkie set an example of exactly what he described above. First, as a couple and then, as a family – always doing the best for Yossi – who comes across as a fantastic person, - and then getting their entire family to identify with helping others meet those goals. The underlying, unintended theme of the book is getting to know this couple who work together, define their differing roles in creating and maintaining Shalva with mutual respect and evince a dedication that knows no bounds.   



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