Members of Krembo Wings’ Kiryat Shmona branch enjoy one of the weekly activities. (photo from Krembo Wings)
Claudia Koby co-founded Krembo Wings, the only youth movement open to all youth, regardless of ability level. It was her son, Kfir, who inspired her – seeing him battle severe disabilities and his intense desire to be part of society at large.
Kfir’s friendship with a girl without disabilities changed his and his family’s life to such a degree that his mother decided to find a way to give other kids with disabilities and their families the same simple but incredible gift.
Krembo Wings was established in 2002, growing to 11 branches serving 300 kids by 2010. That was when Merav Boaz (affectionately nicknamed “Boozy”) joined as vice-president. To date, the movement has 61 chapters.
“I knew I could give a lot from my knowledge and experience, to make the movement known in the public eyes and ears … a new idea that was not in existence in Israeli society before,” Boaz told the Independent. “I wanted everybody to know what the Krembo Wings are doing, to see how well they change the world and society. It was like a fire in my heart.
“When I joined, almost no one knew about Krembo Wings…. Today, the movement has 6,000 kids involved – from the special needs kids to the able kids that help them be part of a life-changing movement.
“It’s the kids who run the branches, guided by adults. We give them the power to do so. It’s a lot of thinking to make it happen – to do the seminars really productively, to make them understand they can create their own reality. I think that, because of the kids, we’ve made this breakthrough, this change. From a local initiative, we became a national youth movement.”
When someone has a child with a disability, said Boaz, one of the parents usually stops working and starts taking care of the child, “they look for treatment and doctors to make things better.”
When the parents take their child to register in kindergarten, she said, “They tell you he doesn’t fit, that he can’t be with other children – the ‘regular,’ ‘normal’ children – because of the disability. From this point on, you have a kid who leads a different life within the shawl of society. They don’t belong and are not a part of the kids’ society – don’t go to school with their brothers and sisters, don’t enjoy the after-school programs…. A lot of the parents don’t take the kids outside to the mall or to cafés because of their different behaviour, like slapping hands or making noises. You feel that it’s not right that you’re there…. All of a sudden, you have a kid who doesn’t have a right to take part.”
Often, children in this situation are sent to a different school. In Israel, the school is usually not in the same neighbourhood or city where they live. So, they do not make many friends and, when they become adults, few people will hire them, because no one knows them.
“Why are we so surprised that no one will hire a person with a disability?” asked Boaz. “They don’t know how, were never shown how. We want to change that one day.
“I think the next school established in Israel will be a school with kids of all abilities. We won’t have special education schools separated…. We want the kids to go to the same school and do after-school programs…. When they grow together, they will live together in the same community and care for one another. Then, it won’t be hard for a hospital, for example, to hire a secretary who is blind.”
The disability does not need to – and should not – define the person, she said. And this is where Krembo Wings helps.
“It’s good for them to know other kids, to know and develop social skills, and be part of society,” said Boaz. “How would they know how to behave in a café or at a playground if they’ve never even tried it, practised it, because they’re separated?”
Boaz shared the story of a dad from Krembo Wings’ summer camp who has twin girls, one of whom was born with cerebral palsy and has difficulty walking, so she uses a wheelchair.
“When they go out together, nobody would even notice or try to talk to the twin in the wheelchair, because – automatically – people think she’s not well in her brain,” said Boaz. “Nobody is patient enough to talk to her. No kid stops to get to know her. But, at Krembo Wings, everyone knows her. She has so many friends now, but never in her life did she have friends before. She says, ‘Krembo Wings is my life. It’s where I’m loved by other kids.’”
When kids come to Krembo Wings once a week, they feel a sense of belonging, they sing songs and play together.
“When you accept, you don’t hate. When you don’t judge, you’re tolerant of others, you become more forgiving.”
“You can see how they don’t judge, they include – not because the teacher told them and not because they read it on the walls of the school,” said Boaz. “They practise it and it becomes a part of their souls, lives and values. When you accept, you don’t hate. When you don’t judge, you’re tolerant of others, you become more forgiving.”
The children without disabilities help ensure that their mentees take part in activities. “They learn to be creative, to work with the ability that each person has,” said Boaz, and this “improves their skills and their school success. They are better friends to … friends, to their parents. It’s amazing. Imagine them as grown adults in society – they will care more.”
Parents of children who aren’t able to communicate at Krembo Wings say how big the impact is – their kids do better at school, have more self-esteem and improved communication – from being in an environment of acceptance.
“I had a 16-year-old counselor, able-bodied, who wrote an email saying that, at school, they asked him to write an essay about the person who has influenced his life the most,” said Boaz. “And, he was thinking of his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, who was a kid when the Nazis came to Poland. He lost all of his family, but he survived. Then he thought about his mom, who had breast cancer – a survivor, too. But, he decided to write about [another] person who influenced his life, because he learned from him what the meaning of being a hero is – of knowing how to deal with tough situations, to be resourceful, smart, full of life and always positive. That person’s name is Don and he’s 10 years old. He has severe cerebral palsy. He tries every day to get up and walk. He tries to practise how to talk with a speech therapist every day, because he wants to be understood. The 16-year-old said that Don taught him the most how to be a hero – disability or not.”
For brothers and sisters of children with special needs who are in Krembo Wings, Boaz said, “They say that, for them, it’s the first time they’re not ashamed to be the brother or sister of a kid with a disability. One girl wouldn’t invite people to her house. Her brother would make gestures no one could understand. She said she prevented her friends from coming to her house. She didn’t want them to know. With Krembo Wings near her house, the youth came to meet him and she saw two girls her age, able-bodied, good-looking, popular, talking to her brother, communicating. She said she was shocked. When her brother started going to Krembo Wings, he came back so relaxed, so happy, like he had had a break. She felt it – the missing piece in his life was filled…. When she came to Krembo Wings and joined in, she had members to mediate activities and, through her connections to another mentee child, she got closer to her own brother…. She learned how to communicate, to be tolerant, to listen – and that it’s OK if he’s like that…. She now knows he has the right to be a part of society and she has the tools to help change things…. More than they have a right, there’s so much they can give to society.
“We believe this change starts with kids. But, it also changes the parents … these same parents who had problems finding a kindergarten. As one of the mothers shared, for the past 15 years, she has been told how her kid does not fit in anywhere, yet no one could tell her where he does fit. All of a sudden, there are Krembo Wings … kids pleading with her to let them take her son to an activity. We pay for transportation, pick them up for three hours and return him satisfied, happy.
“I saw a mother crying, saying the counselor told her she could go do whatever she wanted to do, that they would take care of her kid. She said, ‘I don’t remember what I like to do, how to be alone without her … I’m always taking care of everything … I don’t have friends anymore.’ It changes [a] parent’s life as well.”
“This platform is not only good with or without special needs, it’s good for any society. If it’s not Jewish and Arab, it’s Bedouin and Christian. The kids get tools and values they need. It just happens. It’s more natural for kids than separation.”
When Krembo Wings wanted to open a branch in Lod, city officials recommended they open two branches to avoid mixing Arabs and Jews, but Krembo Wings refused, saying they do not believe in separation of any kind. The city officials conceded and said they could try, but to not expect it to work.
“We opened one and it was a big success,” said Boaz. “So, this platform is not only good with or without special needs, it’s good for any society. If it’s not Jewish and Arab, it’s Bedouin and Christian. The kids get tools and values they need. It just happens. It’s more natural for kids than separation.”
The Vancouver connection
The Kiryat Shmona branch was started in the nearby mechina (pre-army training program) in kibbutz Maayan Baruch before the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver took it under its wing, providing space in Kiryat Shmona’s Beit Vancouver for the branch to run its activities. The Federation has also provided funding of $26,000 a year for the last two years.
“They were so sensitive toward the kids’ needs and really understood,” said Boaz. “When you have donors, sometimes the donor – out of good will – starts interfering with the way you deal with the activity or the money or whatever – but Vancouver never did that.”
According to Candace Kwinter, chair of Jewish Federation’s Israel and overseas committee, “Krembo Wings is an incredible program. It enables every child living with any type of disability to take part in enjoyable social interactions between one another and their able-bodied peers and become part of community life in Israel. As a federation, we’re proud to support this program, which is based in Beit Vancouver, and empower both the participants and the volunteers.”
Kwinter quoted one of the mothers of Krembo Wings in Kiryat Shmona, whose daughter has Rhett syndrome. “When Tom was invited to join Krembo Wings,” said the mother, “I tried to explain to the young counselors that it’s difficult to interact with her…. She doesn’t speak and interactions are complicated…. They continued smiling and said that they believe it will be worth our while, that the activities are fun and there are a lot of other children and youth at the branch, with and without disabilities. I said yes, even though I was confident they would give up quickly.
“Today, after Krembo Wings has been in our lives for almost two years, I can confidently say that, where therapists and professionals failed, a group of motivated youth filled with faith and love have succeeded. They have filled Tom’s life with happiness, friends, laughter and songs – and have made our lives infinitely better…. It is an essential part of our family.”
Even with a budget of 22 million shekels (more than $7.7 million Cdn) and 61 branches, Krembo Wings has long waiting lists and not enough money to open new branches. Half of its revenue comes from the Israeli government and municipalities and the fees they collect from members who are able to pay; they subsidize everyone who cannot pay. The other half of the budget comes from fundraising. For more information, visit e.krembo.org.il.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.