When Elie Klein describes ALEH, he can’t help but plagiarize. But he insists it’s for a good cause.
“I know that Walt Disney coined the phrase ‘happiest place on Earth,’” Klein said, “but we can officially take it from him.”
ALEH (Advancement and Rehabilitation of Children with Complex Disabilities) is an Israeli organization dedicated to holistic care for children with severe, complex disabilities (90% of the children and young adults it serves are nonverbal, according to Klein). Founded in 1982 as an educational program by a group of parents dissatisfied with the medical and educational services that they found for their children, ALEH has expanded into four rehabilitative and residential centers for children with special needs in Israel. There are 750 children living full time at the facilities, which are staffed by 1,300 Israelis of all stripes — secular, religious, Arab, Druze and more. And 1,100 Israelis volunteer their time as well.
Klein, ALEH’s director of development for the U.S. and Canada, stresses that ALEH is especially focused on considering the entirety of the family. Understanding how relationships within families that include a child with severe special needs can be strained, ALEH has developed programs to educate parents, grandparents and siblings on how they can help loved ones live full lives. ALEH, Klein said, is “the engine behind the families who need this additional help.” The residential factor, especially, Klein said, relieves significant pressure.
“It gives them the ability to be families,” he said.
It was with all this in mind that Sedona Cohen, 12, decided that she would work with ALEH for her Bat Mitzvah project. About a year and a half ago, Cohen, whose grandparents have long supported ALEH, struck up a pen-pal relationship with a girl her age, named Uriah, who lives at the organization’s Jerusalem location. Concurrently, Cohen embarked on a fundraising effort. The goal: $7,500 by the time of her Bat Mitzvah, enough to purchase a new, higher-tech wheelchair for Uriah, one that Uriah herself would be able operate with training.
It was an audacious goal, and one that her mother, Ruthi, knew her daughter could accomplish. (Sedona has raised around $5,000 thus far.)
“She’s like a mini-adult,” Ruthi Cohen laughed. “We say she runs our household.”
For more than a year, Sedona raised money for the wheelchair and continued to correspond with Uriah, who responded with assistance from ALEH staff. All the while, she studied to become a Bat Mitzvah at Har Zion Temple.
Ruthi Cohen believes her daughter was especially suited to the work, which requires an uncommon level of empathy and maturity for a child of 12. Sedona’s time as a competitive horseback rider, she said, helped develop those traits. Additionally, she said the time her daughter spends among classmates from different ethnic backgrounds at The Baldwin School was similarly important.
In August, the Cohen family headed to Israel for a two-week trip. During their travels, they visited other causes that they support — a training center for service dogs and an IDF base among them — before heading for the ALEH center in Jerusalem. There, Sedona, joined by her parents and her younger sister, Eve, spent the day with Uriah and other residents. Sedona and Uriah took part in a “twinning” ceremony, as part of the former’s Bat Mitzvah. Klein said he was impressed by the ease with which the family, and especially Sedona, interacted with the residents.
“She’s an incredible little girl,” he said.