Saving The Starfish
‘You grab her arms and I’ll grab her legs and together we’ll lower her into the pool.” This sounds pretty scary to an average person, but for Batzi these words were music to her ears. As Dolma and I carefully lowered Batzi into the pool, Batzi smiled as she touched the water. While supporting Batzi under her back as she laid on the water I spoke to her, asking her if she liked the water and if she was having fun. I didn’t expect a reply and didn’t get one. Now and then Batzi let out a light giggle to show that she was enjoying the experience. After a while Dolma and I lifted Batzi onto a towel on the side of the pool so that she wouldn’t get cold.
You might be wondering, who is Batzi? And Dolma? And what was I doing and why? All these questions can be answered with a single expression: Lev Binyamin. Lev Binyamin is a camp for kids with disabilities located in Ofra, Israel.
Batzi was my camper this summer. She is 17, paralyzed and unable to speak. Dolma is Batzi’s home aide who accompanies her to camp. And what was I doing? I was volunteering in Lev Binyamin.
I live in New York and have spent the past 12 summers in Ofra, a settlement in Israel. Last year when all my friends were making plans to either go to sleep-away camp or work in a day camp, I was looking for something different to do during the summer. There is no camp for kids my age in Ofra so my options were limited. Most kids in Ofra work for money or do nothing the whole summer. In previous summers I had seen a camp for kids with disabilities in Ofra so I decided to check out the opportunities. Michal Finkel, the camp director, told me that I could volunteer for the months of July and August.
Lev Binyamin is a program for children with special needs. For 11 months during the year, the kids come after school to play and have a good time. This gives the parents some respite from the day-to-day stress of caring for a special needs child.
During the summer there are two camps. The big camp has about 40 to 50 campers and functions as a travel camp. The small camp, where I worked, has fewer than 20 children enrolled and they do not leave Ofra. The small camp is for kids who can’t travel every day. This includes kids in wheelchairs and young children.
Each day there is an assortment of activities scheduled for the kids in the little camp. Many of the kids are severely disabled and are therefore limited in their activities. All campers are assigned a personal counselor. My camper, Batzi, was two years older than me. Since she cannot talk or use her hands and is confined to a wheelchair, there are not many activities she can participate in. I talked to her throughout the day but I have no way of knowing what she understood. The only responses Batzi can provide are smiles and giggles. These signs of happiness were shown most often when Batzi was in the pool. The camp makes sure that every kid goes into the water even if the camper must be lifted in and out of the pool and held the entire time.
Lev Binyamin is supported by donations and volunteers. Lev Binyamin (literally the Heart of Binyamin) is located in the Binyamin region of Israel, northeast of Jerusalem. The three trailers that house the camp are donated by the girls’ high school in Ofra (the camp is located on the school campus in part of the dormitory housing). The food for lunch was prepared by Ofra residents and camp T-shirts were also donated. The kids also received gifts of knapsacks and toys.
On the last day of camp the counselors received a letter that retold the classic story of a young girl who walks along the shore and tosses starfish back into the sea in order to prevent them from drying out and dying. A man sees the girl doing this and says, “Why are you doing this? Your efforts are futile. You can’t possibly save all the millions of beached starfish.” In response, the young girl takes one additional starfish and tosses it very far into the sea. “You’re right, I can’t save all the starfish in the world,” she responds. “But, for this particular starfish I actually am making a huge difference.”
I feel the same way about Lev Binyamin. I know that I can’t help all the handicapped children in this world or even in all of Israel — not even all the special needs children in the Binyamin region. But to the families of Lev Binyamin campers, it makes a HUGE difference. I know this is true from the letter I got from Batzi’s parents, Anat and Eli.
They are devoted, caring and loving parents. They are dedicated to finding Batzi the best possible environment at all times, during the year and during the summer. Yet they have several other children to care for and the work involved in caring for a child with such special needs can be overwhelming. They are very grateful for the work Lev Binyamin does and for each and every counselor who provides mental and physical stimulation for their daughter in a tender and caring atmosphere.
“We greatly appreciate your allowing Batzi into your life – to experience the joyful and youthful atmosphere that Batzi could never experience without you,” wrote Anat and Eli in Hebrew. “When Batzi goes to camp our burden is temporarily relieved. While we are still worried about Batzi, and how she is faring while she is away, we trust you implicitly.” While Anat, Eli and the younger children are entirely devoted to Batzi, Lev Binyamin allows them some respite from the constant care Batzi requires, some time to give their other children a little extra attention.
While working with severely disabled children and adolescents can be both physically and emotionally draining, it is also very rewarding. The experience has also made me more appreciative of my very normal life. I am thankful for my ability to feed, bathe and dress myself and I am supremely grateful for my ability to communicate with words and on paper. I have learned that my “normal” abilities are not to be taken for granted.
Yael Kaplan is a sophomore at SAR High School in the Bronx.
This article is reprinted from October 30, 2009.