Life & Culture

Making waves: the Israeli charity transforming disabled children's lives around the world

Jonathan Sacerdoti visits a charity which gives hope to thousands


When it comes to technology, Israel is well known as a forward-thinking nation. Its entrepreneurs, investors and tech geeks constantly push the boundaries of what is possible, benefitting the lives of people far beyond the small state’s borders. But it is not just in the commercial technology field that this enterprising creativity is changing the world. One charity for disabled children, is pursuing a similar model of innovation and international collaboration to help improve the lives of unlimited numbers of people with special physical and mental needs.

Walking round the campus of Beit Issie Shapiro in Ra’anana is an inspiring and positive experience. Despite the very challenging needs of some of the children for whom it caters, there is a palpable sense of ingenuity round every corner and in every classroom.
For more than 40 years Beit Issie Shapiro has pushed boundaries. Not content with building Israel’s first hydrotherapy pool outside a hospital facility, it recently sent its leading experts to Ghana to teach a groundbreaking hydrotherapy training course there. This first-of-its-kind initiative saw 39 professionals in Ghana undergo an intensive four-day training programme to become certified hydrotherapists. Ghana is now the first country in Africa with professional hydrotherapists working with individuals with disabilities.

Michael Lawrence, Chief Advancement Officer, showed me the hydrotherapy pool in its Israeli facility. “You can’t tell when you look in a pool who has a disability and who doesn’t,” he says. “And we bring technology into the pool. So a child who is non-verbal can bring their tablet into the pool: we waterproof it. Then they can continue to communicate with communication boards and so on. It’s not therapeutic if the child can’t say ‘I’m cold, I’m scared. I feel good.’”

The pool helps treat a vast array of disabilities. Because the water removes much of the effect of gravity, it relieves the feeling of pressure which many of the children experience.
Ziv’s daughter, Rhea, first came to Beit Issie Shapiro at the age of two. “She could barely walk and was very passive and apathetic from a social and communicative standpoint,” he explains. “Soon after her arrival at therapeutic day care, she began to blossom. In the pool she was like a little mermaid.

“The change was nothing short of amazing,” he explains. Parents, as well as children, experience the benefits from the treatments, he says: “Watching the therapy sessions was kind of a mental therapy for me. After each visit, I would leave full with optimism and renewed strengths.”

Yael Yoshei, senior occupational therapist and coordinator of hydrotherapy training at Beit Issie Shapiro, explains that “we have been working for over 40 years to change the way society sees people with disabilities. We do it by identifying the need, developing a solution for the need, assessing the solution and spreading the knowledge. Over the years, we have developed many models working with people with disabilities. Our goal is to spread whatever we have learnt so people in other countries — such as those in Africa — can benefit.”

One of Beit Issie Shapiro’s founding aims was to allow disabled children to receive the help they need in one single setting, rather than having to zig zag across the country to receive expert help and intervention in various settings. This frees the children to live less disrupted lives, and of course allows their parents and families to maintain a degree of freedom and normality as well.

Limor tells me how she struggled to cope when her son, Gadi, was born in America with a rare genetic disorder that affected his heart, growth, lungs, digestive system, muscles, vision and hearing. Her optimism during her pregnancy was soon replaced by fear and loneliness after he was born. “All of the innocence, the confidence, and the excitement that had been building up for months came crashing down,” she said.

She and her husband struggled for the first two years of Gadi’s life, visiting numerous therapists and doctors. At a certain stage, Gadi stopped responding and progressing at all. In desperation, they made aliyah, hoping to find better treatments in Israel. They soon arrived at Beit Issie Shapiro, where they instantly recognised a totally different approach.
“All those therapists, teachers and doctors we saw on a daily basis in the US had been so focused on fixing and training and programming his little broken body, and in this room halfway across the world we were invited to allow the simple beauty of his soul to just be,” she said.

Gadi began to develop in ways she had never imagined. “It seems so simple now and yet for us at the time it was so incredibly profound.” Gadi began to walk, talk, eat, run and play. Eventually he joined a regular classroom and has been in the regular education system ever since.

Having established an impressive centre of excellence that not only provides for the constant flow of children who use its facilities, the organisation also works constantly to spread its expertise through training and consultancy, so that the number of people to benefit from their work is never limited by the size of the physical facility where they are based.

The charity aims to develop new technologies and best practices, so they can then train others to implement them elsewhere, spreading the benefit far and wide. Within Israel they work with all sectors — Jewish, Arab and others.

Beit Issie Shapiro is on the cusp of realising another ambitious dream, which it hopes to then replicate elsewhere. It is establishing Israel’s first Inclusive Early Childhood Campus.
This visionary project, set to replace its De Lowe Early Intervention Centre, embodies the organisation’s belief in an inclusive society where children with and without disabilities learn, play, and thrive together.

It heralds a paradigm shift in education and inclusivity, by offering preschool classes tailored to children aged from birth to three years, in a campus where all children can develop and learn side by side — disabled or not disabled.

This approach is rooted in the belief that inclusivity not only benefits individuals with disabilities but enriches the lives of all children, nurturing empathy, understanding, and a sense of unity.

Ahmir Lerner, executive director, explains the vision is “to have the next generation grow up in a world where people with and without disabilities play together, interact and see each other as equals”.

Whether it’s through tech-driven classrooms, personalised assistive technologies, spreading hydrotherapy know-how around the globe, or pioneering inclusive schools, this pioneering trailblazing Israeli organisation is truly redefining how society can accommodate people with diverse abilities.

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