Sunday, May 11, 2014

Project ‘Great in Uniform’: Integrating Those with Special Needs

The Great in Uniform project starts in the army but doesn’t end there. We can clearly see how afterwards it leads to a better integration into the society, the community and the workforce.

A member of the Great in Uniform IDF project is saluted
A member of the Great in Uniform IDF project is saluted
Photo Credit: Great in Uniform project
In 2001, IDF Lt. Col. Ariel Almog was driving in his car near Sde Trumot junction in the Jordan Valley. Ahead of him was a bus, which stopped to take on passengers. “I could see a man approaching the bus in a suspicious manner,” Almog remembers.
“This was a difficult time, with many terrorist bombings against Israeli civilians. I stepped out of my car and realized that this was a terrorist, carrying an explosive device. After a short struggle I was able to control him, and was astounded to discover 3 explosive devices on his body.” The terrorist’s intention was to create a double attack and to activate the remaining bombs by remote control after detonating the first one, thus hitting police and rescue forces.

“After neutralizing the terrorist, suddenly shots were fired at me from a nearby olive grove,” Almog recalls.
“Apparently another terrorist was hiding there in order to assist his comrade. “I drew my personal weapon and started firing at the grove to neutralize the second terrorist. During the shootout I was shot in the head and was wounded, but I kept firing until I managed to hit the second terrorist and neutralize him as well. Thus, I was able, with God’s help, to prevent a multi casualty-terrorist attack.”
Almog was hospitalized for two and a half months, every day of which he thanked God that he was alive. During his time recovering in the hospital, Almog was exposed to many injured people with disabilities.
“We say ‘Arvut Hadadit -All of Israel is responsible for one another,’ this expresses the commitment of Jews throughout the generations. Indeed, it seems to be the very secret to the survival and existence of the Jewish people.
“So my dream was to create a project that would incorporate disabled teenage boys and girls into the IDF. “Unlike for American youth, for most young Israelis service in the IDF is a normal part of life in the years between high school and college. Service becomes a core rite of passage in Israeli society.  It is an empowering, transformative experience,”Almog thought to himself.
It is difficult enough to raise a child with special needs, but it is absolutely wrenching to know that once that Israeli child reaches the age of eighteen he will need to confront his limitations in the harshest of ways; he will never be a soldier. It is one more way that those with special needs are taught that despite the best of intentions, the reality of calling their limitations “special” means they have something less than, not just different from, others.
This was why Reserve Major Colonel Almog, changed that reality with Project “Great in Uniform.” The purpose of this project is to integrate young people with disabilities in the IDF for a stint of three years as part of their preparation for an independent life in the Israeli society.
Great in Uniform participants Great in Uniform participants
Lt. Col. Almog’s spirit, passion and ongoing care are an inspiration to everyone involved with the organization. A man whose incredible bravery on the field of battle is well known, and who’s bravery off the field of battle in taking on this important mission is just as impressive. The project enables young Israelis with disabilities to perform significant supportive and productive tasks as part of IDF service.
The beginning of the military service is a 4-day basic training, including group formation by professionals. Afterwards the soldiers are integrated in a variety of functions as part of the manpower, such as preparing protective kits, working at emergency depots, in the military store, in the printing shop, the kitchen, the shredding mill and more.
“I arrange batteries and am proud to be here; really proud to be here!” says Shanni. Her face is beaming and the pride is evident.  She is a soldier in uniform; a contributing member of society.
As Adva Suderi, a social worker for the project, explains, ”They were in special education schools. They felt like failures. And suddenly they reach the age when everyone else joins the army and their gates are closed. They can’t join. This project allows them to join the army, to contribute, to give from themselves. Just like everyone else.”
The service is done in a supportive and helpful atmosphere, with the soldiers returning every day to their housing structures, which are located near the military base where they serve. The apartments are spacious and equipped at a high level. All soldiers take part in housekeeping and share cooking and cleaning chores.
This helps them develop independence and the skills needed to take an active part in a social environment. Additionally, each member of the group gets individual plans for personal advancement as well as workshops for enrichment, culture and leisure (such as computers, sport, theater, arts and more.)
Throughout the project, the soldiers are accompanied by experienced and dedicated professionals, who invest much energy and heart into this special unit of soldiers. The team consists of psychologists, social workers and instructors, who give skillful guidance in addition to generous bursts of love and joy.
Col. Ariel Almog notes what is most important about the project he has founded, ”For some this is the first time they leave their house and have to deal with sleeping away, in a military base. They get basic training, learn about the values of the IDF, tour the country and get to know it. Maintaining human dignity; this is what we do here every day.”
What happens when the three years are up?
The soldiers, who complete their military service, move on to the next stage in which they are integrated at workplaces within the area of the hostel.  In one recent example, ten soldiers were integrated at a soap factory in the area, and learned to take the bus by themselves to the workplace and back.
A few months ago, the association “Lend a Hand to a Special Child”(an organization established in 2005 by a group of parents with special needs children) joined the project with the purpose to increase the scale of the project and to market it to thousands of young people, who are suitable for the program and are unaware of its existence.
As Rabbi Mendi Belinitzki, CEO of Yad Layeled Hameyuchad, explains, “The Great in Uniform project starts in the army but doesn’t end there. We can clearly see how afterwards it leads to a better integration into the society, the community and the workforce. The Lend a Hand to a Special Child foundation will expand the project so that G-d willing, thousand more teenagers throughout the country will be able to join the project.”
To further the growth of this project, Rabbi Mendi Belinitzki and Lt. Colonel Ariel Almog will be visiting Los Angeles from now through May 12 for special events. The goals are big, but so are the determination and conviction of those devoted to this special cause.

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