Special needs facility built on ‘determination and faith’
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Special needs facility built on ‘determination and faith’

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Yossi Samuels, 31, envelops a visitor’s hand in his own. Into his left palm, a translator rapidly spells the visitor’s name – A-V-I-G-A-Y-I-L, in Hebrew. A smile spreading across his face, Yossi dances his fingers in response. “He wants you to ask him questions,” his companion interprets.

For although a tainted childhood vaccine robbed Samuels of sight and sound in 1977, when he was not yet a year old, the young man is extraordinarily engaged with his surroundings. He devours two newspapers daily. He has a personal trainer. He’s passionate about cars. He studies the Torah portion of the week. And he loves receiving guests in his home away from home, the center that his parents founded.

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Shalva children learn at play. Photo”ˆcourtesy of Shalva

Like so much else in this land of tragedy and triumph, Shalva, the Association for Mentally & Physically Challenged Children in Israel, was built on determination and faith in the wake of personal heartache.

Housed in an immaculate, colorful six-story edifice overlooking the Jerusalem Forest, Shalva (Hebrew for “tranquility”) is the realization of Malki and Kalman Samuels’ vow that if God helped them help their son Yossi, they would dedicate themselves to other parents with special-needs children. It was not until Yossi was 8 that a deaf teacher finally broke through the boy’s wall of silence via finger-spelling in the same way that “Miracle Worker” Annie Sullivan had reached 7-year-old Helen Keller in 1887.

Five years later, using funds from a benefactor in her husband’s native Vancouver, Malki Samuels was able to start an afternoon activity/therapy group for 10 special-needs children. Word of the program grew. Today, Shalva’s 24/7 services also include a popular Me & My Mommy early-intervention program, a rehabilitative day-care center, an overnight respite program, a “graduate” social club, and summer camps. All services are free, made possible by private donations and a large crew of volunteers who assist the salaried health-care professionals.

“When we walked in the first time, we just smiled at each other,” recalls Sara Klavan Zimbalist, a Teaneck native whose son Avraham was born with Down Syndrome shortly after she and her husband, Simmy, moved to Israel in 2005. “You think, ‘Every child in the world needs a place like this.'”

The Zimbalists noticed that many of the donor plaques on the walls were etched with familiar names. Since opening its current facility in 1998, Shalva has attracted support from more than a few North Jersey philanthropists. Several Jersey kids have donated bar/bat mitzvah gift money to the center and even held parties there.

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Aviva Kupinsky, a former Teaneck resident, and children Eli and Leah. Photo”ˆby Abigail Klein Leichman

Among frequent visitors are Rabbi Zev and Chana Reichman of Englewood’s East Hill Synagogue. The rabbi brought a group of bar mitzvah boys to the center in May as part of a father-son mission.

“I’m proud that there are people from New Jersey and from all around the world who view Shalva as something very important,” says Zimbalist, who recently relinquished her place in Me & My Mommy to someone with a new baby. There are always parents waiting for spots to open up.

Aviva Kupinsky’s aunt and uncle in Teaneck, Elaine and Hillel Weinberger, were among Shalva’s major supporters even before their niece started taking her developmentally delayed son, Eli, now 2 1/2, to Me & My Mommy. She is back in the program with 10-month-old Leah – who, like several older siblings in the family, can benefit from more therapies than she is qualified to receive through the national health system.

“Leah is my first child to start crawling at 9 months,” says Kupinsky, also a former Teaneck resident. “And that’s partly as a result of Shalva’s therapy program. They do really good things by helping them at such a young age.”

With a burgeoning waiting list – and a burgeoning annual budget – the Samuels are seeking additional contributions to defray the $40 million cost of a huge new campus under construction on a tract of land gifted by the Jerusalem City Council.

“When there’s another program for Avraham in the new building, we’re in,” said Zimbalist. “We will have so much to take advantage of.”

When Avraham was just 6 weeks old, Shalva speech therapists helped his mother teach him to nurse. “Down Syndrome babies have low muscle tone, and I needed help getting him to open his mouth,” Zimbalist explained. “They showed me how to stimulate the muscles. At first it would take half an hour to get him to latch on. But I ended up nursing him for more than two years.”

Just as valuable was her contact with other mothers of Down Syndrome babies. “At the beginning, it was very hard, because I saw 2-year-olds who were not like my older children had been at 2,” says Zimbalist. “Your hopes and wishes and expectations change. But you grow into accepting your child. When Avraham became one of the older kids, his abilities gave the other mothers a lot of encouragement.”

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Simmy and Sara Klavan Zimbalist, with son Avraham, moved to Israel from Teaneck.

While most of the children at Shalva have Down Syndrome, there is a separate Me & My Mommy group for children with different disabilities, including Leah Kupinsky. This is in order to enable the parents to bond with those whose children have similar challenges, according to Andrea Simantov, Shalva’s director of communications.

Both groups share advice and support, and learn various therapeutic techniques to continue at home. Kupinsky says the hydrotherapy segment of the weekly program “is the highlight of my week,” when she and Leah get in the pool together with a therapist and two other mother-baby pairs.

Adina Kordova Ellis, a 1998 graduate of the Frisch School in Paramus, is an occupational therapist in the therapeutic day-care center. She and the other professionals work as a team to help the kids reach specific goals.

“At the beginning of the year, you might give one of these kids a ball and he would fling it into the middle of the room without knowing how to direct it with purpose and meaning,” Ellis says. “Now he knows how to play a game with the ball and can occupy himself with it. When one of the kids accomplishes a goal, whether it’s playing with a ball or crawling for the first time, everyone gets excited. There is a lot of positive energy here.”

Each success diffuses beyond the walls of the center, says Simantov. “I can’t imagine anybody who thinks that what we do here has nothing to do with them. Even if they have somehow been spared the task of parenting or being an uncle or aunt or grandparent to one of these children, the health of the community affects everyone,” she says.

The center’s Website is www.shalva.org.

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A Shalva therapist works with a child. PHOTO”ˆCourtesy of shalva
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