AKIM: Providing Pride & Dignity for Israelis with Special Needs.
Barri Rind is used to fighting for a cause when the cause is right. Born in Jerusalem, she has resided in the Seattle area for the past 36 years. A mother of three children, her youngest son was born with Autism. This propelled her on a very special journey to assure her son, and others with similar challenges received the best supports and services available. So began a lifetime of community service, from the board of Puget Sound Special Olympics to advocacy for special needs children to raising funds for cutting edge biomedical research. So when a representative from AKIM, an Israeli social services organization approached her for help, she had every right to say her plate is full.
AKIM is the largest non-profit social services agency in Israel, they serve over 36,000 Israelis with special needs, providing help to 150,000 family members. “I really knew very little about AKIM” acknowledged Rind, “but when I was told what they did, it touched my heart. I told the AKIM people that the Seattle Jewish community was already oversaturated with non-profits and I was unsure if the community could absorb another, but something compelled me to see the AKIM programs for myself.”
Rind’s fact finding trip to Israel was a life changer for her. “I know something about services for special needs children, what I saw in Israel takes it to a whole new level”. AKIM serves children and adults with a wide gamut of needs including Cerebral Palsy, Autism, emotional and mental disabilities, all sorts of health needs and physical disabilities.” The organization even provides legal assistance to help families negotiate the sometimes befuddling Israeli bureaucracy.
For Israeli families with limited monetary resources, their options are few. With dozens of residences and facilities all across Israel AKIM provides a vital lifeline. “I saw a full day AKIM kindergarten in Tel Aviv where the children are dropped off at 6am. Every imaginable cutting edge educational tool was being used” recalled Rind. “The AKIM school was bright and gorgeous, they provided walkers, special strollers, wheelchairs, everything modern and comfortable for the kids”.
Rind quickly understood that she was experiencing something unique that had to be shared. “The AKIM group home for high needs adults looked more like a villa”. This particular group home requires a very high staff to resident ratio as most require 24/7 supervision. “And yet they take them to the beach, to parks to museums. It is an undertaking to help these folks feel a part of Israeli society, but AKIM takes amazing steps to make sure it happens.”
AKIM trains their clients to enter the Israeli workforce. Rind recalls “we visited a factory where many of the employees are AKIM clients with Down Syndrome. They wear the lab coats and hair covers that all of the “regular” staff wear and they help on the production line. Many have been promoted to more responsible positions. “But” says Rind “the most important thing is how the other employees evolve in their relationship to people who have unique challenges. “Akim doesn’t just change the lives of their clients and their families, they are changing Israeli society”
Later, the AKIM representatives took Rind to an IDF intelligence center. Inside a giant warehouse stood towers of stacked decommissioned computers. “The computers contain classified information and can’t just be thrown into the garbage.” Army intelligence had a problem and AKIM had a solution. In Israel, everybody is expected to serve in the Army or national service, for many it is a sign of belonging.”Sadly, many young men and woman of army age could not be inducted due to their particular challenges. AKIM came up with the idea of training a group of special needs young men and woman to remove and destroy the classified hard drives” said Rind. “They wear army uniforms, get army salaries, and are given something far more valuable, a sense of worth”. Shared Rind “One soldier with a diagnosis of autism told me that before she was included in the AKIM program she had no friends and no hope, she had even tried to kill herself. She says that wearing the IDF uniform and serving her country has given her pride and purpose.”
“I was shown a community center in Modiin” recalled Rind, “Leah, a young woman in Sherut Leumi was working with AKIM to provide much needed respite for the parents of special needs children. Leah had recruited local teens to organize and plan evening and weekend activities for the special needs kids. It did more than provide some much needed relief to the parents, the teens learned to embrace and respect their special needs peers and the AKIM kids were having a great time”.
As the trip wound down, Rind decided to throw her AKIM tour guides a curve ball. “I told them to take me to their highest needs facility. With no advance notice they took me to a residence for young adults who are for the most part bedridden and functioning at a very low level. And yet the love and care the AKIM staff showed these precious souls was breathtaking. The home was clean, bright and modern. I went into the kitchen and the chef showed me a file they had for each resident with their culinary likes and dislikes. Each dish was made special to the tastes of each person.”
AKIM is funded partially through grants by the Israeli government, but half of their budget depends on the generosity of donors from all around the world. Upon her return from Israel, Barri was determined to help AKIM in their important work. She joined AKIM Regional Director Anat Brovman and two other dedicated volunteers who work tirelessly to raise awareness and funds for this important organization.
“I want people to understand that AKIM provides incredible care to the most vulnerable and needy in Israel, but this is just the beginning. AKIM is introducing Israeli society to their beautiful brothers and sisters that once were relegated to the shadows. AKIM is helping their clients to find their place in Israeli society and is teaching Israeli society how to embrace and welcome them.” Akim is non-denominational and serves the entire spectrum of Israeli society.
Rind asked us to let TMR readers know that their help is needed and that there are many ways to help. AKIM is holding their Seattle fund raising event on May 2nd at the SJCC, there is information about the event here. Ambassador Ido Ahahroni, Consul General of Israel in New York will be at the event. For those who cannot attend (the dinner begins on Shabbat and is not under Va’ad supervision) we urge you to consider a donation of any amount which can be made here.