Special needs

When war left Israeli parents of children with disabilities with few options, Jerusalem’s Shalva stepped in

Mother of a boy with autism from Ashkelon says the center helped him start speaking, sleeping through the night, after the initial days of war caused a major regression

For the families that have a child with special needs from southern and northern Israel, the evacuations from their homes brought additional challenges.

For at least the first few days, in some cases weeks, families were cooped up in hotel rooms, without their routines, without schools, social services and normal surroundings. These are difficult conditions for anybody, but for people with special needs, who do not necessarily have the capacity to cope with this kind of stress, the effects were severe.

Inna Shibaev from Ashkelon whose 4-year-old son has autism said he “was suffering, crying and couldn’t sleep” in the early days of the war, even after the family was moved to Jerusalem. When there were air raid sirens, Shibaev said, “sometimes he runs away, sometimes he just freezes in place.”

This has also put considerable strain on the parents. A new study by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Autism Child and Family Lab looking at the emotional states of parents of autistic children found levels of depression, anxiety, and stress that are 2-4 times what they were before the war and are higher than those of parents of typically developing children.

This can also be seen, albeit anecdotally, in Shibaev’s family: Last month, her husband suffered a heart attack. Throughout the conversation, she was often on the verge of tears, when discussing the initial days of the war in Ashkelon, the specific difficulties of facing it with a son who has autism and the family’s uncertain prospects for the future. “I am shattered,” she said.

After these first few difficult days, families that had been placed in Jerusalem hotels began looking for some kind of educational framework for their children. Dozens of them found Shalva, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit center that works with people with disabilities and their families.

Shalva is perhaps best known for its band, which is made up of people with disabilities who perform around the world. The nonprofit offers a broad array of programs for people with disabilities in the Jerusalem area.

The roughly 70 “children” who came to Shalva, mostly from Ashkelon and Kiryat Shmona, ranged in age from 1.5 to 38 years old. Most of them have low-functioning autism; others have Down syndrome and other developmental disorders, Bar Yisrael, Shalva’s volunteer coordinator, told eJewishPhilanthropy at the organization’s center in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vagan neighborhood.

Though it does work ordinarily with children on the autism spectrum, the Shalva National Center is not specifically designed for it, Yisrael said. The brightly colored walls and murals of butterflies and other animals can be overstimulating for children with autism. Yet Shalva staff members — as was the case in many nonprofits in Israel after the Oct. 7 attacks — said they quickly understood that if it didn’t offer assistance to these families, no one else would.

“It was our privilege and our duty to help them,” Shalva’s CEO Yochanan Samuels told eJP.

At first Shalva offered a day camp for these children, but it quickly became clear that something more robust was needed, Yisrael said.

“The children had regressed two years in a month,” Yisrael said.

“We needed to start a routine for them. Offer therapeutic activities: sports, music, therapy dogs,” she said. When eJP visited, the displaced children were taking part in drama therapy, watching a pair of performers act out a goofy scene involving a sleepy princess and a boisterous rock star.

Shalva’s social workers began working with the parents on a volunteer basis. The nonprofit’s various specialists worked with the children and their parents, many of whom preferred to spend their time at the Shalva center, which was completed in 2017 and contains a cafe, rather than stay all day at their hotel.

For Shibaev, her time at Shalva was profound. “I am speechless about how good Shalva has been to us. They opened their arms and took us in,” she said, recounting how when her husband had his heart attack, people from the center immediately offered to watch her children so that she could accompany him to the hospital.

The time at Shalva also helped her son, whom she said was in a bad place in the early days after the war, getting him not only back to his normal level of functioning but even surpassing it in some ways.

“He started talking!” Shibaev said. “He never did that at home.”

In addition to these 70 children with special needs, most of whom have since returned to their homes, Shalva has also been hosting a boarding school for at-risk teenage girls, which was evacuated, and a school for three kibbutzim from the Gaza border area that were evacuated.

“Absorbing them into a system that already serves 1,000 people with disabilities each day was a real, significant challenge,” Samuels said. “But we are glad that despite the challenges and the costs and the difficulties that we could help them in a significant way.”

The costs, Samuels added, have been significant. The government has compensated Shalva for the use of its facilities for the boarding school (though he said that it does not cover the full costs), but the rest of its efforts have been on a volunteer basis.

“We need good philanthropists with a big heart who want to help the Jewish people and — along the way — to help us with these activities, but not just with these activities, also to prepare for bigger crises, if there’s a war in the north,” he said.

At the end of last month, the Israeli government rescinded its evacuation order for Ashkelon, meaning residents of the city would no longer have their housing covered by the state so most have returned to their homes, which have since come under renewed rocket fire, albeit less than before. Northern Israeli communities are also expected to be sent home in the coming weeks, along with some towns closer to the Gaza border.

“Even though most of the people from Ashkelon have gone home, we are still giving them assistance because such a deep, warm connection was formed and so much support was given to the mothers and the families,” Samuels said. “We’ll support them with relevant professionals over Zoom, send them kits and maintain that connection in order to both preserve the children’s abilities and to boost the families’ emotional resilience.”

Shibaev said she planned to maintain contact with Shalva going forward because of how helpful they had been with her son, even as the city of Ashkelon has reopened his special needs daycare center, which can provide much of the same services as Shalva. “He’s different,” she said. “He doesn’t cry at night anymore, he doesn’t scream.”