May 30, 2024
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May 30, 2024
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A school in the community of Dolev is more than just a home for disadvantaged youth. Contemporary society defines “at-risk youth” as children who have an increased likelihood of delinquency or other difficulties as a result of home or environmental factors. But what happens when a child has already passed that at-risk stage? There are children around the world, including here in Israel, who are one step away from living on the streets, in prison or worse.

This population is already entrenched in a world of crime, drug and alcohol addiction, suffering from extreme neglect, physical and sexual abuse, rape, various traumas, or forced prostitution or enslavement— or perhaps experiencing a combination of these worlds wreaking havoc on their lives.

But there is one award-winning organization in this country whose mission it is to reach out to these young people and bring them back from the brink in order to rebuild their identities from scratch. Known as Beit Dolev, this unique outfit operates residential rehabilitation centers and educational institutions, and offers other programming based in three locations—Ashdod, Modi’in and Dolev—reaching 450 Israeli boys and girls who perhaps most appropriately can be defined as being “beyond at-risk.”

The backbone or hub of the organization is Ulpanat Dolev, a one-of-a-kind school including living facilities for girls located in the western Binyamin community of Dolev, where 120 female students in grades seven to 12 are given the opportunity to restore their lives alongside the 220 families who call the area home.

Ilan Biton, who has served as the principal at Ulpanat Dolev over the past 15 years, says that “each girl at the school has her own individual story.” He goes on to detail a handful of some of the most unimaginable and horrific episodes in the lives of some of his current students.

Half of his students were removed from their homes under a court order because of various abuses; 35 % were treated in psychiatric hospitals for trauma and a whopping 60% attempted suicide.

While each story is different—some girls arrive at the ulpana via a court order declaring an unstable home environment, others after being arrested, while for some there is simply no other place to go—a trait that the girls all have in common is the lack of a normative home life and family unit. And that is where the ulpana comes in, welcoming these children with a warm embrace. “After an initial first intervention,” says Biton, “the school designs a specific course of action and builds a program suited to each individual girl’s needs.

The programs are assembled using a four-pronged evaluation,” he adds.

“Firstly, there is an emotional assessment conducted by school mental health professionals, to determine the required therapies and treatment avenues.” (The school provides daily therapies, including animal, music and art.) “Then there is the educational assessment, used to see where the student is on an academic level. Thirdly, a decision is made in terms of what the student will do for work.”

Biton explains that all students are required to find some form of suitable employment. This might include a job at the on-campus professional bakery, or with the student-operated event catering business in the community. Another option is to work at a local cleaning service. Whatever the field, the students are trainedand take on jobs both for educational purposes, to learn the value of a shekel, and for practical reasons, so they have a source of income.

The final aspect of program building involves the establishment of set, individualized behavior guidelines, which a student is expected to adhere to while living and learning on campus.

“The girls are given proper boundaries, which they never had,” says Biton. “The only boundaries they might have had before were delivered through beatings.”

Another unique aspect of the ulpana is that in addition to the very supportive staff on campus, each student is assigned to an adoptive family in the community of Dolev, “in order that they can see what ‘normal’ family life is,” notes Biton. He says that often the ulpana girl becomes another member of the family.

“The parents treat them like a daughter,” says Biton. “Some families give them their own rooms in their homes, take them on vacation and when they are older, even walk them down to their chuppa [wedding canopy].”

In fact, Eli Shafir, Ulpanat Dolev’s director of development, attributes a great part of the school’s success in turning lives around to the warmth and tolerance shown by the residents of Dolev. Shafir, who left the world of business a year ago to accept a position at the school, explains why he believes the people of Dolev are so special.

He asks, “Tell me honestly, how many people would be willing to live in a community alongside these girls, who come from such troubled backgrounds?” Shafir is grateful to the people of Dolev for accepting the institution and the girls within their neighborhood.

During the school year, the entire student body lives in Dolev during the school week, either in one of the 10 mishpahtonim (houses) located on campus or in houses rented out by the community. Each mishpahton accommodates up to 12 girls. Around 30% of the student body lives in housing provided by the school on a full-time basis, as they simply have nowhere else to go for a variety of reasons.

For the past two years, 24-year-old social worker Or Reuveni has worked at the ulpana, living full-time in one of the houses alongside the girls, and serving for all practical purposes as their mother. Reuveni, who is married with a young child of her own, says that in actuality, “I have 13 children. One is biological and the other 12 are not.” She explains that she is on-call to the girls 24 hours a day, just like a true parent.

While the girls are at school, Reuveni spends her mornings like any mother would, handling the affairs of the house and planning meal schedules and menus, while working to make sure the girls’ lives are in order.

From scheduling dentists’ and doctors’ appointments to placing orders at the pharmacy and working with state-appointed social workers who oversee certain girls’ cases, Reuveni multitasks, handling a plethora of issues.

“Every room here tells a different story,” she says on a tour of her mishpahton’s facilities. This is just after getting off the phone with a colleague, having discussed how to work with a girl at the ulpana who refuses to eat, claiming her prescribed medicine is making her gain weight.

Shafir stresses that Reuveni’s main goal, with the help of an 18-year-old who is living and working in the house as part of her national service, “is to make these girls feel at home.”

Just after 3 p.m., a loud gaggle of girls enters the house upon the completion of another school day. Reuveni asks the girls to gather in the living room for their daily short meeting in which they give an update on current events at the school. She then hands out responsibilities in maintaining the home. A list of household chores is posted, with girls working in rotation, assigned to various tasks including making breakfast or dinner, or cleaning duty.

Scanning the living room, there is a television as well as a computer, where a sign-up sheet is posted for the girls’ use.

But the main goal of the meeting is really to see how everyone is doing in their lives. It’s the beginning of the school year, and several girls are adjusting to their new environment, while others are getting their class schedules in order and are selecting after-school activities in photography, drama, or computers.

There is also the opportunity for volunteer work. A program in cooperation with the area police department, explains Biton, allows the girls to serve as volunteer cops. Some of the girls, who have a police record themselves, can have their slates wiped clean upon completion of their apprenticeship. Biton says that he has worked with girls who turned their lives around and are now policewomen themselves.

“It’s that difference, where the girls are when they arrive, compared to where they leave” that Biton says he uses as a yardstick to measure the school’s success. Over 95% of the girls complete their matriculation exams, he says, and enter the army or volunteer for national service upon graduation—results, he says, would be unimaginable upon learning about these girls’ pasts when they arrived.

Grazia Moyal, a resident of Dolev and mother of four who works as a teacher at the school, but is says that she herself was a student at the ulpana 25 years ago. Moyal says she came from a very difficult family situation, but “thanks to my time at the school, I was able to turn my life around.” As a teacher, she is able to relate to the students and share her life experiences, while providing an empathetic ear and at the same time serving as a role model based on her success.

Moyal also credits her adoptive family in Dolev for helping her during her troubled childhood. “Because of the family I was assigned to, I was able to grow and spread my wings, and now I have a family of my own. They gave me a lot of support. That’s how special the families are in here in Dolev, full of kindness.”

Coming almost full circle, Moyal and her family now serve as an adoptive family for a 12th grader studying at the ulpana. “This girl had nowhere else to go, so we took her in. Our home is always open to her. She comes for Shabbat and the holidays.”

Biton explains that 80% of the school’s budget comes from various government ministries, while 20% comes from private donors both here and abroad. But raising funds for the school in the private sector has been challenging.

“Certain wonderful organizations work with the disabled community,” says Biton. “But these girls also arrive as if they are disabled. But since they don’t have outward signs, don’t sit in wheelchairs, for example, it’s hard for people to understand that they are truly in need of a great deal of support.”

By Josh Hasten,  Jerusalem Post (Reprinted with permission)

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