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Dana Pinhasov: giving Israeli kids a summer of fun

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(Kids of Courage photo)
Dana Pinhasov and her son before going to the army. (Dana Pinhasov photo)

In February 1996, Dana Pinhasov, who was 21 at the time, boarded a bus near her home in Jerusalem, to return to her military base. As the bus neared the Jaffa Gate, a suicide bomber boarded and set off a 10-kilogram bomb. Pinhasov’s seat was on top of the gas tank. After months of hospitalization, 17 surgeries and extensive rehabilitation at the Beit Halochem Center in Jerusalem, which provides care to disabled veterans, she started to recover.

Two years later, Pinhasov became the first woman on the national board of directors of Beit Halochem Israel. In 2014, she partnered with Beit Halochem Canada, to launch Kids of Courage, a program that brings 50 children of disabled Israeli veterans to attend summer camp in Canada for four weeks.

Why did you get involved with Beit Halochem?

I’m a disabled war veteran myself. I was injured in 1996 in a bus bombing in Jerusalem while I was a border patrol policewoman. My injury was really bad. I had lots of burns and am severely disabled. A few years ago, I approached Beit Halochem. I wanted to do something for severely disabled veterans’ children who are bar and bat mitzvah age, as a celebration point for kids who grow up in homes with a severely disabled parent.

Why have you stayed involved with Beit Halochem after all of these years?

Being a war veteran immediately gives you rights with the disabled veterans organization in Israel and they have four facilities in Israel called Beit Halochem. It’s basically a country club for disabled people and their families. They have a special gym, pool, sauna and all kinds of activities designed specifically for disabled people. So being involved with Beit Halochem Israel and Beit Halochem Canada is kind of my day-to-day life. That’s where my family goes, that’s where I go and it was a natural step to stay with them.

What is your day-to-day involvement with Beit Halochem?

(Kids of Courage photo)

For the past four years, I’ve been heading Kids of Courage as a volunteer coordinator. I’m doing the Israel part, interviewing all of the kids and families that applied for the project, I’m doing the screenings, lots of preparation meetings, ticket ordering, all of the logistics that are included in bringing 50 kids to Canada. And then I travel with them here. I’m basically their parent right here in Canada. I have four young chaperons that come right after their military service. Two of the chaperons are children of war veterans, one is actually a war veteran and I’m the adult of the project here in Canada. I hug and I punish, if necessary. I’m the one they’re scared of and I’m the one they run to hug, so that’s my job here.

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Why did you start Kids of Courage?

I have four kids of my own and I’m a happy person, but growing up in a disabled person’s house is not easy. The physical injury, which kids and other people can see, is one thing, but when you have parents with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or who are paraplegic or quadriplegic, kids grow up in a different environment and in some way they lose their childhood. Seeing my own kids and kids of my other disabled friends, I thought that they needed some time away to remember what it’s like to be a child without the worries of growing up at home or in Israel, which is difficult in itself.

Why do you feel that summer camp is an important opportunity for these children?

Because it gives them independence. They don’t have to take care of anyone. We don’t have summer camps in Israel, not like North America does anyway. And they have to learn how to trust themselves, how to do things for themselves, how to enjoy themselves and develop new aspects of their lives. Canadian summer camps do exactly that.

What impact have you seen on the children who attend these camps?

I can tell you, when they land in Israel and walk back out from the terminal to their parents, they walk differently. They stand tall. Parents have told us that all of a sudden, amazing things happen in the month or two after they return. All of a sudden, they are more responsible, they are willing to take on stuff at home, they understand things differently, they are willing to give back to their siblings, to their family, to their friends. And their English improves by 1,000 per cent. 

Is there a story that stands out for you, that you feel reflects the program in a nutshell?

I can tell you lots of amazing stories, but there is a story that comes immediately into my head. Two years ago, I was preparing the delegations and a month before we left, I got a call from one of the parents saying that his child doesn’t want to go. What child doesn’t want to go to Canada for a month? What happened? After some investigation, it turned out that the father had severe PTSD and he had a small restaurant. The child, who is the oldest child, is getting up in the morning, opening the business and returning after school, bringing the father his lunch, giving him his pills and closing up in the evening. The child was afraid that there would be no one there to take care of his father. The child was the grownup in the house and he was afraid.

Usually we give the kids two phone calls in the entire four weeks, so I made a special arrangement with that child and said, “you know what, you can call from my personal cellphone every day and if at any point you will feel your father is not OK, I will send you back immediately.” So on the first day, he called home and he was OK. On the second day, he called and it was OK. On the third day, he said, ‘I think they’ll be OK without me.’ And that’s it.

After a week, when I came to the camp and let the kids use my phone to call home, he said, ‘I’m not really sure I need to call home, they are probably better off without me because I’m so happy here.’ That kind of impact, that is the change that happens in kids’ lives. That’s what it does. 

(Kids of Courage photo)

Why did you choose kids of bar/bat mitzvah age?

It’s a turning point in Jewish life, where a child becomes a man or a woman. They are not too young, but they are not too old. They are right at the turn, so it’s an amazing point.

What do the kids do when they arrive in Canada?

We start with all 50 kids on a bus touring the Toronto area. We went to Niagara Falls, Canada’s Wonderland and Sky Zone. Every night, a different family from the community hosts the entire group for a pool party with a barbecue. It’s an amazing week for the group to get to know Canada, to adjust to the hours, to get over their homesickness and then go to camp. The last camp left yesterday (July 26) and next week, I will start the camp tours of Camp Wahanowin, Camp Walden, Camp New Moon, and Camp Northland-B’nai Brith. 

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.