|Volunteer’s Impressions of Aleh Negev Sukkot Day Camp 2007
"Students Lead Southwards" Initiative
There’s a famous saying: “When you smile, the whole world smiles with you.” But just try this experiment at home: face the wall, and try to persuade it to smile. Keep trying, and see what reaction you get.
I know that’s not a fair comparison, but that’s how I felt for the first two hours I spent at Aleh Negev, where I came to volunteer.
And then everything changed.
Aleh Negev is a rehabilitative village, a green haven for autistic and disabled people, whose chairman is Major General (res) Doron Almog. We arrived – a group of 15 student volunteers, with some trepidation. We were told that if we felt uncomfortable in any way we could sit on the side, not participate, or even leave.
And then we began the process I described earlier. It is difficult to describe the feeling of sitting across from someone who is confined to a wheelchair, seemingly focused on one particular spot in the universe; and to try to talk to her, to draw pictures for her, to play with her and try, somehow – anyhow, to gain her attention.
It had been some time since I tried to draw a butterfly with a pink marker, or cut figures out of crepe paper and mix sparkles with glue. And now I found myself trying as best I could to prepare bumpy decorations for the Sukka – but no matter how hard I worked, there was no feedback. No reaction from R., sitting across from me. All around me my friends seemed so happy, laughing and hugging residents, connecting with them; I felt that only I had not succeeded, so I decided to go outside and look around.
I found a room with special people making beautiful wood creations and silk scarves decorated with simple elegance (one staff member told me that these items are sold, with proceeds going to the residents). I was amazed to discover an impressive hospital, necessary since many of the residents have severe physical disabilities. And then I came across A., a resident my age, who looks 16 and is as happy as a child. I was thrilled when he approached me and offered to show me around. And so we began our tour, which for me was the beginning of my turnaround.
A. taught me several things: to savor and re-appreciate the importance of apple juice, how to ride a tricycle properly (I had forgotten) and – most importantly – how to offer unconditional love.
That helped me make my decision: I would return to Aleh Negev and give it another chance.
On the second day of my visit, the brick wall opposite me finally gave way.
We returned with reinforcements – people who had heard about how rewarding and satisfying it was to be there. (They had also heard about the karaoke that was planned for later!)
We swarmed the stage with microphones, noisemakers and drums, and to my surprise we were greeted by an appreciative and vocal crowd. The music touched hearts and resonated outwards through clapping, singing (from people without the ability to speak!) and dancing (from people unable to dance – myself included). One of my friends encouraged G. to lean on her – without the assistance of a wheelchair – and to sway. Another volunteer spent hours bonding with C., one of the more “difficult” residents. You could see him thriving and blossoming from all the personal attention.
I looked on the side and saw “my” R., who had not responded to all my efforts yesterday. Now she was shaking a tambourine in rhythm with the music. I sat across from her again, with a drum, and I unabashedly danced. And unbelievable! I was finally rewarded with a smile. What a wonderful thing! What wonderful people! I cannot describe how it felt as we both sat there grinning from ear to ear.
And this is what I came away with: it is hard to say that these special people are just like the rest of us. Their lives are much more difficult, they deal with many more physical obstacles. Yet despite that, they are so much more charming and so much more optimistic, and their purity and innocence of spirit shine through.
There is no question that they gave me more than I gave them. But when I think back to how I first saw R. – sitting with a closed expression, and how I left her – with a spark in her eyes, I know that I also gave them something in return.