Of all the WIZO institutions that were threatened and damaged by the wave of fires that swept Israel's north and center two weeks ago, including nine WIZO daycare centers that were evacuated, the one most affected by far was WIZO Achuzat Yeladim, sponsored by WIZO Australia, home to very troubled youth for whom the school is a real home and last chance; these are children who have failed in previous educational frameworks, and often come from highly dysfunctional homes suffering from abuse, alcohol & drugs and neglect.
On Thursday, November 24th the students and teachers were forced to evacuate the campus because of the encroaching forest fires that posed an imminent threat to their safety and lives. The children could even see the oncoming flames from the windows of their dormitories. Before they left, flames had even reached the school’s backyard.
That morning, 46 students were evacuated. School Director Yossi Saragossi spent the morning coordinating the transfer of the students to the CHW WIZO Nahalal Youth Village, sponsored by Canadian Hadassah WIZO (CHW) and WIZO UK,while Danny Arman, the school’s head of maintenance put out fires on campus with his own two hands. At WIZO Nahalal, Director David Horesh made all the displaced students feel welcome and at home. All of the students were safely at Nahalal by 5:30 PM and with the help of the welfare services, were mostly sent to their own family homes later in the evening.
"When we returned to the campus on Friday morning, it was clear that the youth village had been saved thanks to the daring (if not dangerous) hands-on work of Yossi Saragossi, Bahar Ouda (another maintenance worker) and Danny," commented the school’s principal, Hagit Berlinski. They had themselves, despite police warnings, run from fire to fire, around the campus, putting out fires with water hoses and made extra efforts to save the lives of animals from the school's petting zoo. The fire had completely destroyed the educational greenhouse, petting zoo and bakery while also damaging classroom and dormitory buildings.
After a staff meeting held on Friday morning, it was decided that the first priority was to return as many students as possible to their safe haven and daily routine - they would gradually be brought back to the school , despite the damages, reduced space, number of beds and lack of electricity.
On Sunday November 27th a special meeting was held with the school's staff, to try and understand the level of trauma experienced by the teachers who protected children as best as they could and the students themselves who witnessed flames encroaching upon their "home." A couple of dozen students returned that day. The following Wednesday, students who had returned were sent on an overnight trip to Jerusalem, sponsored by the Jewish Agency, in order to give them a bit of fun and change of scenery, in light of the trauma they had experienced and devastation.
At WIZO Achuzat Yeladim, within days of the tragedy, students were provided with programming to help them return to routine as quickly as possible. The school's therapeutic staff held special sessions of the "hossen" program - workshops teaching students how to deal with crises in a positive way, utilizing various forms of expression: verbal, written and artistic.
What stands out as most impressive from the tragic experience of the fires is the dedication of the school staff, who worked to protect the children and make sure that those who had been removed from their family homes by court order would be returned to the safety and comfort of the school as quickly and seamlessly as possible.
"I am once again moved to the core by the tireless and selfless work of WIZO staff at all levels," said Chairperson of World WIZO, Prof. Rivka Lazvosky. "During frightening and difficult times like these we see the true spirit of WIZO and the people who make it the special place that will protect Israel's weakest children at all costs."
"The staff should be praised. I hope that all WIZO volunteers and friends will come to Haifa to show their support for the staff members and give them a big hug," added Principal Hagit Berlinski.
I addition to protecting the children and students at its institutions WIZO simultaneously mobilized to help fire victims across Israel by opening the doors of its dozens of nationwide second-hand clothing shops or "bigudiot." Clothing and everyday necessities were made available for evacuees, free of charge. WIZO centers also prepared meals and food for evacuated families and offered free practical and emotional counseling. The WIZO Parents hotline, a free telephone counselling service also went into emergency operation status, providing advice and support for families in the areas affected by the fires.