“We are creating a new generation of children that will break the cycle, and we encourage them to set high targets. We don’t nurture them just so they will be able to give back to society and become normative citizens. We want them to be la crème de la crème and excel in every phase of life. The young adults who graduate from the programme are not only the pride of their foster parents and the dedicated team that raised them, they are the pride of WIZO that gave them a much needed second chance”, says Shay Levi, a foster father in the Neve WIZO project.
Neve WIZO is a foster family community consisting of four houses that was established in 1982. Each is home to eight children from about ages three to 18, who were removed from their families due to their parents’ inability to raise them.
Children enter the programme by court order and undergo a process of emotional, psychological and educational evaluations to determine their needs. Every other weekend, the children return to their biological homes for a visit; for those who are unable to return to their homes, Neve WIZO provides substitute hosting families. “Neve WIZO was designed to empower the kids, to ensure that the children will grow and develop in a caring environment, will excel academically and be accepted into society. I know it sounds pretentious, but we want to change the fate of these children from hopelessness to a promising future where they can become loving and caring parents.” explains Yardena Nof, director of Neve WIZO and the supervisor of the out-of-home placement services. This unique project takes place in spacious and wellkept cottages, connected to each other with joining yards. The facility is located in a quiet middle class Herzliya neighbourhood, which ensures that the children will not feel isolated from the general population and enables them to attend regular kindergartens and schools. The atmosphere around the houses, which were donated by WIZO South Africa, is pastoral, similar to that of a kibbutz.
Selection of the foster parents
Each household is led by a veteran married couple who stay in the project on average for five years. Nof indicates that the parent selection process is the hardest mission. It’s a gruelling procedure that includes a primary interview with Nof and her staff, additional tests by a diagnostic institute and an interview with the candidates’ biological children who are asked why Neve WIZO should hire their parents for the job! “We are looking for people who have proved themselves in raising their own children, and are interested in starting a second chapter in parenthood. They see parenthood as a mission, and have patience and the ability to provide for the children unconditionally. They need to display emotional maturity, empathy and the ability to accept guidelines from a professional team.”
The staff includes a social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, art therapist and additional experts from the mental health fields, due to various traumas and other painful experiences that the children have encountered in their lives. The programme also includes dental care, speech therapy and other educational therapists based on the children’s needs. The majority of the Neve WIZO children come from broken homes in which drugs, abuse, poverty and mental illness were dominant. As a result, many of the children enter the programme with low self-esteem and insecurity. In the first years of the programme, some of the children tend to steal or display other problematic forms of behaviour.
Very special people
Ariela and Eli Netanel, a teacher and ex-banker, always fantasized about nurturing and fostering unprivileged children. Over three years ago, the couple, who are parents to two grown children, decided it was time to fulfill their dream. Ariela admits that it took them six months to respond to the ‘foster parents wanted’ ad which was hanging on their refrigerator door.
“We consulted a lot with our children, immediate family and friends and were surprised from the positive feedback we received. Instead of telling us ‘are you crazy and why do you want to punish yourself now that you are finally free,’ the majority of the people we spoke to gave us their blessings,” says Ariela Netanel.
Although they went through a long and hard transition, the couple emphasized that the emotional payback was worth it. After a year and a half of ups and downs, the Netanels finally felt at home due the changes they saw in their foster children. “There is no feeling in the world that can be compared to when the kids come home from school and hug you. Every time there is a crisis and the regrets start to kick in, you say to yourself ‘how can I leave this child? Who is going to take care of him? It’s not fair’. When you realize what message you would give these kids by quitting on them, that actually no one wants them, you bite your lips and continue,” explains Eli.
The Netanels’ biological kids also became part of the Neve WIZO family. The couple’s son frequently comes to visit, helps his new brothers and sisters with computer problems and he and his older sister constantly buy them gifts. “Our foster kids are an integral part of our biological children’s life. They treat them like younger siblings, and it is great to see how much they have bonded with them,” adds Ariela.
After a long and successful career in the high tech industry, Shay Levi decided it was time to make a change. Getting close to his 50th birthday and their two daughters leaving the family nest for their army service, Shay and his wife Sigal started to look for a place that would allow them to give back to society.
Neve WIZO was the best match for the Levis’ desire, due to its distinctive and intimate setting in the Israeli foster care world. “The programme is limited to 32 children placed in a community within a city that is considered one of the most exclusive in the country. The implication of this is that Neve WIZO children get much more privileges then those within the general welfare system in Israel. If this project was not under WIZO wings, these kids would benefit much less from it..”
Even though the Neve WIZO kids started their lives at a disadvantage compared to their peers, Levi is convinced that their potential is enormous. As a proud foster father of a recent graduate who now serves in an elite unit in the IDF, Shay’s expectation is that all the Neve WIZO kids will do much more with their lives. “I think that each child from our project has the potential for excellence. I am certain that by giving them the right tools, we can push them to achieve much more than just getting married, having children and working. We want these kids to be officers in the army, to be above average and aim high.” While Ariela adds that becoming successful is not enough, it is also important to her that her foster children “will become honest, good and moral adults.”
Levi emphasizes that in order to achieve these goals, Neve WIZO supplies the children with educational, physical, social and other needs, and actually allows them to experience life like regular kids. “We constantly make sure that they will see the world the way it is, and not isolate and raise them in boarding school conditions as is customary in the Israeli welfare system. Our goal is to broaden their horizons by taking the children to museums, day trips and other activities that will expose and prepare them for life outside. We, the foster parents, have the time and the willpower to provide for these children, but we are dependent on the financial support from WIZO.” Nof adds that Neve WIZO is a highly respected and recognized project within the organization and receives much support from the Executive “which acts like our warm, extended family.”
The connection between the foster parents and the children doesn’t end when they turn 18. The foster parents are occasionally invited to their foster children’s weddings, and other celebrations. “We have no intention of replacing the biological parents. We will always be there for them, help and support them so their transition to the outside world will be smoother. It’s a connection for life”, says Eli who along with Ariela keeps close ties with a girl whom they fostered for one year and soon will finish her two-year army service.
At age five and a half, Dana (not her real name) came to Neve WIZO and fell in love with the place after visiting the director’s office which was full of dolls. She asked her mother if she could stay there, not realizing that this would change her life. Twelve years later and after recently graduating high school with honours, the vibrant teenager is thankful for her fortune. One of the hardest obstacles Dana had to deal with was the high turnover of foster parents during her time at Neve WIZO. Her current foster parents, Shay and Sigal are her fifth set of household heads in Neve WIZO. “It’s almost impossible to open your heart every time to new parents, especially in the last year of my stay here. You have to get used to new food, new educational philosophy, new personalities, new home and basically everything new.”
On the other hand, Dana expressed that frequent sibling changes taught her to “open my arms and welcome every new child that joins us since it’s the only way to live with seven other kids around you. The Neve WIZO experience taught me to be a better person, and I know that I would
never have been able to succeed in school without it. My mother would never have afforded all the books, private teachers and all the other enormous help I received here. My goal is to build a normal family so my children will not have to endure what I did. I hope one day when I will be a doctor, psychologist or other influential person, to give lectures to disadvantaged children that will strengthen them and give them power to believe in themselves.”
Eden (not real name) who is also Shay and Sigal’s foster daughter, came to Neve WIZO 11 years ago with her brother who was drafted last year. The 18 year old with a big smile, is counting the days to start her army service as a paramedic. “I had to leave the house at a very early age after my parents divorced, so I got used to living in a few worlds at the same time. Besides Neve WIZO, I split my time between my father and mother’s homes and soon I will have another home: the army. But I will always have a warm spot in my heart for this house.”
In her spare time, Eden who also graduated high school with honours, is writing a book with the fitting title To Survive, to inspire underprivileged children based on her life, especially during the Neve WIZO era. “I know that without it, I would never have become an outstanding student, would not receive the values that I got here and wouldn’t be the same person I am today. I learned here, that the key to success in life is education, therefore I put the effort into studying. Neve WIZO definitely saved our lives. Even though we started life at a disadvantage, Neve WIZO made sure that we feel equal to everybody else and not different .”
“I am very proud of this project. The dedication of the staff and the foster parents, enables us to take children that come from harsh backgrounds, and give them all the love, services and everything a child needs in order to develop and flourish”, says Hassida Danai, chairperson of the Early Age Division of WIZO.
Danai, who worked for many years as a supervisor in the field of special education, believes that the uniqueness of Neve WIZO is in its setting: a care home rather than a boarding school which allows the staff to work around each child’s needs and weaknesses. “The children at Neve WIZO
learn to share things and express themselves within the family unit, things that are much harder to do in a boarding school. There is a beautiful harmony in each Neve WIZO family, which strengthens each child’s self confidence.”
The special nurturing environment encourages the children to approach their foster parents in every matter and problem they encounter, just like in a normative family setting. Danai feels that Neve WIZO provides stability in the lives of children who otherwise would be shuffled from one
framework to another. “Neve WIZO gives its kids the feeling that they are equal and they are ‘as good as the next guy’, even though before becoming part of the WIZO family, they went through life without ever getting appreciation and a kind word.”
Editor’s note: Neve WIZO was established in 1982 after the old Mothercraft Training Centre (sponsored by WIZO South Africa) in Tel Aviv was closed down in 1981. The MTC was originally a WIZO nurses’ training school and also housed baby and toddler welfare cases. The centre was closed at the request of the Ministry of Welfare who decided that keeping children in a closed institution was detrimental to their development. The children remaining in MTC when it was closed became the first residents of Neve WIZO (also sponsored by WIZO S. Africa). Today, WIZO’s Parents’ Home stands on the site of the MTC.