Connecting with serious ill children at the Jordan River Village

Working in a startup like FlaskData.io developing cloud-based clinical data management software is like a triathlon ( I did the Eilat triathlon in 2013 so I can compare). There is a long swim of developing software where you are on your own (and maybe get kicked in the head) and then the adrenaline rush of launch when you hit the beach, run up the trail and get on your bike to start delivering product to customers.  There is nothing like getting out of the water…  Then there is the run – the long grueling and strenuous process of providing support and service to real live customers.  The finish line is the best – knowing you put in the work, shipped product, got through the rough spots and put in the work to help your customers succeed in their clinical trial.

I try to balance work with other activities – and the one that is closest to my heart is JRV – the Jordan River Village. So – this is the story of how my wife and I celebrated 40 years together with a week of volunteering with a group of seriously ill children. Yes – it has taken almost a year to write this story but I think it’s worth it and I hope you agree.

April 2015

JRV at 40

Things Neta didnt tell me at the interview.

Jan 2015 – At the kitchen table

This year, my wife and I will be celebrating our 40th anniversary. My closest friend and partner in software development projects the past 20 years (who is from Tel Aviv), once said that my marriage to Ofra is my most successful project to date. I dont disagree. We sit at the kitchen table considering our options. We could go on a trip and stimulate a foreign economy or do a dinner with the family or an extravagant family weekend. Or we could do something more meaningful. Ofra recalls vaguely that she heard about a project led by Haim Topol up North somewhere. We google and start reading about JRV. It sounds like a cool way to contribute something of substance but we have a lot of questions. We send an email to the contact on the Web site and after about 2 weeks we get a reply from Neta – who is in charge of volunteer services. It all sounds a bit vague – she asks us if we can accept authority from people much younger than us and we reply – of course. We set a date to drive up for an interview. In the meantime, she sends us application forms and we get letters from our family physician that we are of healthy mind and body.

Feb 2015 – Interview at JRV with Neta

We navigate via Waze to Givat Avni, just north of the Golani Junction. The first thing you see when you drive down the hill from Givat Avni to JRV is the Welcome Center and the stunning view. We were told to announce ourselves at the gate – and indeed the guard seems to be expecting us. We walk into the administration center and locate Neta on the second floor. Neta interviews us and explains how JRV works – a non-profit camp for children with serious illnesses run by a small core team and a group of post high school graduates doing National Service at the Jordan River Village (the komuna). She stresses how important volunteers are to the program. After the interview, Neta suggests a week of volunteer duty in April. It will be a group of children that are after a psychiatric hospitalization. She smiles and tells us the post-psychiatric hospitalization groups are the most fun. We dont have any experience in this area so we take her word for it. I will be a camp counselor and Ofra will work in the JRV operations supporting camp activities in the background. Were psyched.

April 2015 – Orientation day for Camp #111

Sunday morning we get up early, leave Modiin at 7:15 to beat the traffic. We arrive on time, at 9:30 for orientation day. There are 10 volunteers – 2 girls from Hod Hasharon, friends who just got out of the Army; Shirley and Meytal, the 2 of us and 6 who are doing a 1 year post-high school pre-Army program (mechina) at Kibbutz Maagan Michael. Neta greets us all and counts heads. Were short 1, but a few minutes later, Shir comes in late carrying a big back pack. She is also from the mechina at Maagan Michael and her bus from Jerusalem was late. It is hot weather as Israel can get in April and Shir is wearing a torn, sleeveless, off-the-shoulder t-shirt ,shorts and flip-flops. My conventional-thinking mind forms an opinion about Shir which will soon be changed. Neta gives a presentation on JRV, followed by Zamora, the camp nurse who talks about the challenges of this group, followed by Naama, the camp social worker who talks about the social background of the children, followed by Efi, the head counselor, who gives a very crisp and clear presentation and the rules and regulations, dos and donts of the camp. (During the rest of the week, Ofra will refer to him as Efi hachamud (cute Efi). At 11:00 , the 4 group leaders and members of the komuna (post-high school group of 18 doing National volunteer service at JRV – in Hebrew shin-shinim(plural abbreviation for year of service). The groups are colored – red, orange, yellow and green. Neta does the introductions and when Sapir, head of Yellow group hears that I play saxophone (and brought my horn with me) and says Yes – I want Danny on my team!. And so, Shir and I join Sapir, Maayan, Yaara and Daniel to form team Yellow.

Sunday afternoon and evening is devoted to preparing the Yellow group activities for the week. Group activities are conducted in pairs, so I work with Maayan, Daniel and Yaara. JRV is exceedingly well organised and there is a library of group activities in a structured format. We generally copy and paste and tweak changes here and there. I have an idea for a tweak that involves paper airplanes with pins in the nose that are supposed to be flown by campers into balloons with notes with tasks and questions. Soon – the training room is a proving ground for paper airplanes. Most don’t succeed flight testing but Yaara and I are optimistic after she suggests an engineering change that will improve stability and ballon puncture capability. I am taking this very seriously but having the time of my life. We wrap up around 23:30 and get up the next morning at 07:00 for breakfast and last minute finishing touches.

Monday – Welcome Day.

Sapir runs our last briefing before the children arrive. She tells Shir that she must wear shoes and repeats the dress code for counselors: shoes, shorts with sleeves and long pants/jeans (we are all wearing official JRV t-shirts and name tags on lanyards). No sleeveless shirts or shorts allowed. No touching the children, no selfies and no personal contact outside of camp,

The group of almost 60 campers, ages 8-18 are coming in from the school where they live and study. Many are from broken homes. The bus is scheduled to come in at 10:30. We get to the Welcome Center at around 9:00 and start preparing – inflating balloons and tying them around the Welcome Center arch. The bus arrives on time. We form 2 parallel lines and start drumming on the ground and as every child comes through the line – we lift up our hands and cheer. The air is electric with excitement! Each group leader has a list of names, they are given colored bracelets and shunted off to the side to each group. Part of the procedure is to take a picture of each child and I am watching the whole process with fascination – how well and how smooth the komuna run things. I see a tousled-black hair girl, she looks about 14 (Ill call her Sarah). Sarah goes ballistic and starts protesting (as she sees that they are taking pictures) that she does not, definitely does not want to have her picture taken. I run over to the welcome desk and tell the girl taking pictures to hide the camera because Sarah will go nuts just seeing the camera. And – so we get past the first crisis of camp week. Sarah is in Group Yellow and will be one of my personal stars.

Monday – Day 1 Efi

Sapir runs some warm-up, get-to-know-each other activities in a big circle and teaches the group how to sing the group cheers. Within minutes everybody is into it – and Group Yellow is up and running. We take Group Yellow to Yellow Cabin – boys in Yellow Cabin 2 on the left and girls in Yellow Cabin 1 on the right. Last night we prepared little colored name signs and stuck them over each bed – so the children will have a feeling of being welcome – and it seems to work. They unpack and the days activities start. Day 1 is action packed and by 22:00 everyone is more or less in the sack for the night. 22:30 – 00:00 is reserved for a group meeting with the counselors – Sapir has a wedding of a friend and Efi runs the meeting. I am impressed by his attention to detail and systematic way of running an effective meeting. We review each child in Group Yellow – challenges, things we might want to change. I reflect on my initial impression of Shir – how wrong I was and how serious and dedicated she is with the children. Never judge a book by its cover.

Tuesday – Day 2 Jaws

Group Yellow is up and running having a great time. The challenges of the group do not slow down the non-stop pace of fun. Talk about challenges: a span of ages from 8 to 18; a couple of severe ADHD cases, a couple of borderline autism children and the personal story of every individual child. Todays challenge is the head guidance counselor who came with the children from their special education school. He is big, scary (to me) and reminds me of Jaws. At lunch time, he gives Yellow Group children a motivational about being on their best behavior and minding rules etc. I was scared myself by the motivational talk. Most of the kids were non-plussed but one of the 11th grade girls in our group came over to me and quietly talked about being frustrated by his attitude. Ill call her Rivka. Rivka became an inspiration for us over the next 2 days. She had been through multiple suicide attempts – she wore long sleeves to hide the cut marks. Rivka has come a long way – she is independent, mentally healthy and tough and every evening after the daily activities would go out and run 4-5K. It was a privilege just knowing her. At the evening team meeting run by Sapir; we run through issues with individual children and the issue of Jaws comes up. Sapir is unsure how to handle the situation – its delicate, the children are responsibility of the JRV staff when theyre at camp and the responsibility of the school when theyre at school, but more motivational talks might be problematic.

Wednesday – Day 3 Sometimes in life you just have to let go

Big day – today were doing the extreme sports park. This is the highlight of camp and the kids are (mostly) psyched. I kick off the day with Daniel with Good morninggroup activities. Looking good – Group Yellow! After lunch – I find myself walking down the main path of JRV with Jaws. I decide to take the plunge and talk to him. We walk together for a few minutes without talking and I tell hin – You know, sometimes in life you just have to let go. For a couple of days just enjoy JRV like one of the kids.. He thinks about it for a moment and says – You know youre right. And that was that. No more pep talks. Jaws from that point on was under the special spell of JRV and having serious fun of his own.

In the afternoon – all 4 groups rotate through the extreme sports park. There is wall climbing and ladders. The climbing wall is 4 stories tall – and we are all equipped with helmets and climbing gear. I take a shot at the wall – but dont make to the top. (The next time I come to JRV, I will find that doing the rock wall is a piece of cake so it must be psychological). We go to the top of the tower and the kids start going down the Omega – a 200-meter-long cable. It looks like a lot of fun. One of the girls is frightened and doesnt want to even consider the Omega. Sarah asks the operator if they can go down together and he sizes them up in terms of weight and tells Sarah – go for it. Sarah does a hard sale to get the other girl to go down with her and succeeds in overcoming her friends fears. The 2 go down together in the sling and Sarahs shrieking resounds all over the camp. (Sarah has a crazy laugh and she was a bit of a ring leader in the group of girls, whenever I heard her crazy laugh I knew something was brewing). Sarah – my heroine!

Thursday Day 4 Time to say goodbye.

Thursday morning, we have farewell activities led by Shir and Maayan. Every child is given a blank sheet of paper with the name of a camper or counselor and is asked to write down a few words and pass it down to another camper. We give the children their JRV t-shirts. I read the paper with the words that the children wrote to me – including Sarah and Rivka. I will always cherish that page.

Back at the welcome center – we say goodbye to the children. We say goodbye to Yaara, Daniel, Maayan and Shir and take a group picture at the welcome center. It has been a momentous week. Thats me between Ofra on my left and Shir on my right in her flip-flops…

 

Afterword

The week we were at JRV was during the political campaigns before Israeli national elections. There was a lot of mud-slinging and negativity but the week we spent at JRV was more than a respite from politics – it was life-changing. The selfless compassion, commitment and passion of the staff, komuna and volunteers renewed for me in a very special way my faith in Israelis and in our countrys future. With people like Shir, Daniel, Yaara, Maayan, Sarah and Rivka – Israel can look forward with confidence and anticipation to a great future.

Danny and Ofra Lieberman live in Modiin Israel. Danny is the founder of FlaskData.io and Ofra looks after rare books and manuscripts at the Israel National Library. Ofra and Danny celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary at JRV in April 2015 with a week of serious fun volunteer work. They have 4 children and 9 grand-children. Danny would later return on his own in August 2015 for a second tour of volunteering and together with Ofra in December 2015, for a third tour at JRV over Hanukkah 2015. They hope to come back soon.

 

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