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Canadian experiences Israeli special needs program

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Jordan Fishbayn, left, hangs out with his friend Eliana, at Krembo Wings in Jerusalem. (Karen Levitt photo)

Krembo Wings is an Israeli youth movement that unites more than 5,500 children with and without disabilities from all sectors of Israeli society. Last November, it welcomed Jordan Fishbayn, a very special 22-year-old Toronto man.

“It was the first time that we have had a member be part of Krembo Wings from another country,” said Merav Boaz, the organization’s senior vice-president.

The program runs once a week for three hours after school. Activities are designed to give participants a chance to have fun, make friends and grow in confidence. Importance is placed on allowing members to make their own decisions during group games, which affords them some autonomy and independence.

Boaz explained that the group got its name from the popular Israeli chocolate marshmallow treat. “The kids that came to the very first activity brought some Krembos, because they are easy to swallow for the special needs members and the youth said it will help them grow wings to fly above the wheelchair,” she said.

Karen Levitt, Fishbayn’s mother, was first introduced to Krembo Wings while attending a conference in Toronto where international experts spoke to parents of children with special needs. “I decided it was something I had to see for myself,” said Levitt. “We were in Israel for three months. Krembo Wings was such a gift for us.”

Fishbayn has intellectual disabilities and is described as an affectionate, curious and charming young man with a happy personality who lives life in the moment. “If you ask the youth in the branch, ‘What does Jordy have?’ They would say, ‘A big smile and an open heart.’ They don’t care what the disability is and they don’t label it,” said Boaz.

There are several ways to communicate at Krembo Wings: Hebrew, English, sign language or with gestures pictures, photos or communication devices.

“We also speak in the language of love,” said Boaz. “If you want to accept somebody, you find a way to communicate. And that’s what happened with Jordy – it was amazing for us to see how the youth found ways to include him and want to be his friend, even if they didn’t speak English. They are trained to find creative ways to be inclusive, that’s what we do.”

It’s no wonder that Krembo Wings has been granted consultative status by the United Nations Economic and Social Council, which recognizes the organization as a world leader in inclusion and integrating youth with and without disabilities into informal educational activities. Krembo Wings serves youth aged seven to 22 who have a variety of disabilities. It also includes able-bodied youth counsellors aged 12 to 18.

“We had such a great time with Jordy and it contributes to the kids at Krembo Wings because we know how to include a child from a different culture with a different language,” said Boaz.

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The counsellors take part in an in-depth training program. Boaz said that, “We give the youth a toolbox of how to deal with certain situations that come from disabilities. They learn about autism, cerebral palsy and all kinds of syndromes. The training is not only for (the) able-bodied – we have a blind kid who helps co-ordinate the activities. His disability is not a big deal, because he was trained how to deal with others and to lead them.”

The youth have different roles according to their will and their abilities. “If someone comes in and he has Asperger’s and he is high functioning, he can actually be a counsellor or escort a severe kid with disabilities. He can do that regardless of being on the spectrum,” said Boaz.

“Everybody was so friendly, I had a crack-a-lacking awesome time,” said Fishbayn. He spent time in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where two of the 70 Krembo Wings branches scattered throughout Israel are located. Highlights included: listening to Israeli pop songs (in Hebrew); and learning the actions and cheers during Krembo circle. “I could do the ‘wings’ action with everybody when they sang about Krembo Wings,” said Fishbayn with pride.

“Jordan’s host in Tel Aviv was really interested in Canada and also loved Pokémon as much as Jordan does,” said Levitt.

“I was so happy to meet (my new friend) Eliana, she knew English really well. I remember the fun Hanukkah games, art and our talks about values,” said Fishbayn. “I even had a little crush on her.”

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