Shlomi Avni, the charismatic head of the Nirim in the Neighborhoods project and a former IDF Navy Seal, is always on the lookout for 14- to 16-year olds who are considered lost causes – the worst cases in Israels worst neighborhoods. Typically, they have already dropped out of several schools, are involved with drugs and gangs and have a criminal record. Avni has no doubt that every one of them should and can complete their high school matriculation exams, serve in the army like their peers, and become successful adults. He knows what hes talking about. In the past 13 years, Nirims success rate has been astounding.
With branches in 18 disenfranchised neighborhoods throughout Israel, Nirims professional staff offers an alternative youth movement for those who dont fit in to regular youth movements, providing intensive counseling and support for up to ten years, until these once-hopeless cases become young adults studying at a university or working in a respectable job after serving in the army.
At the crux of Nirims approach is a strong belief in wilderness therapy as a rehabilitative tool. By participating in a series of challenging overnight nature hikes, at-risk youth learn to build their self-confidence and achieve personal goals, both physical and psychological. The climax is a five-day survival trip taking place in a rough desert environment. Each youth is confronted with personal, physical and emotional challenges, and overcoming these challenges has a powerful impact on their self-empowerment, which in turn affects their decisions concerning their future. The staffs guidance and one-on-one attention are especially crucial during these outdoor trips.
At first, the kids usually dont want to go and they have a hard time coping with the trips demands. The staff has to provide constant encouragement and the participants complain more than they help, attests Nirim senior staff member Dan Ben-Gigi, a 34-year old social worker who organizes the wilderness trips. However, after a few trips, its great to see how the counselors can take a step back, as the teens gain confidence and take on more responsibilities, such as preparing their own meals and setting up camp, continues Ben-Gigi.
In addition to 3-4 wilderness hikes a year, all Nirim branches also organize weekly outdoor activities within the communities, usually at local parks. The goal is always to build self-confidence and a sense of belonging to a group.
Another important element in Nirims success is the utter dedication of its terrific staff. The 45 counselors in the neighborhoods function as case workers, and each is responsible for a small group of at-risk youth. They are all well-trained and work closely with Nirims psychologists and social workers to ensure that each youth receives the best care. They are also in close contact with the schools, the families and the welfare authorities, as well as dealing with the police, juvenile courts, parole officers and other figures of authority whenever necessary.
The Nirim in the Neighborhoods clubhouses are open daily (except Shabbat) all year, including during the summer vacation, and once a week theyre also open to the community at large, welcoming youth who want to participate in their activities.
We focus on returning these teenagers to their educational systems, integrating them into society, and strengthening their close environment, their families and their ties to the community, Avni explains.
One of the most important goals is encouraging the youth to serve in the IDF. Without Nirims intervention, the army would consider most of them unfit to serve and that fact would inevitably have a profound effect on their future prospects. In Israeli society, people who dont serve in the army are stigmatized, and the army is actually a great opportunity to break free from detrimental surroundings. After 13 years and 300 graduates, Nirims success rate is indeed impressive: 90% of Nirims graduates have enlisted in the army, half in combat units, and 95% no longer live in poverty.
In memory of Nir
Nirim is named for Nir Krichman, a soldier in the IDFs elite Navy Seals unit who was killed in action in 2002 during an operation against terrorists in Nablus. Two weeks before he was killed, Nir saved the life of his commander, Z., who was shot. When Z. and the other Navy Seals looked for a way to memorialize their fallen brother-in-arms, they decided to create a program to help youth at-risk. Z. had been a delinquent himself, and it was only when his father forcibly enrolled him in a boarding school in the US for at-risk teens which emphasized wilderness therapy, that he was able to turn his life around and, eventually, to enlist in the elite Navy Seals.
Nirim was established that same year by Nirs army buddies and to this day the Navy Seals are actively involved in the project. In fact, current Seals continue to serve as mentors and accompany the survival hikes, and the youth look up to them as role models.
The first step was to set up a special boarding school in northern Israel for extremely at-risk youth. The next year, the first branch of Nirim in the Neighborhoods was founded in Or Akiva, the community where Shlomi Avni, the programs director, grew up and still lives. Today, 13 years later, there are 18 branches of Nirim in the Neighborhoods, with 500 teens registered in the program. Many of the participants are the children of immigrants from Ethiopia and the Former Soviet Union whose families are coping with cultural disenfranchisement as well as economic difficulties. While this is an admirable achievement, it is nevertheless a drop in the bucket. There are so many more at-risk youth in Israel. With additional funding we could save many more of them, notes Avni.
A tough journey
Among hundreds of excited family members at the impressive ceremony marking the end of G.s training in the Nahal Infantry Brigade was G.s personal counselor from Nirim, Golan. Four years earlier at that same spot, G. had threatened to hit Golan because Golan has asked him to help his friends during a wilderness therapy trek. And now Golan couldnt hold back his tears.
G. grew up in a tough neighborhood in Netanya. His parents came from Ethiopia and were having difficulties integrating into Israeli society, making it hard for them to give their eight children proper support and guidance. By the age of 14, I was already deep into drugs and alcohol abuse and was well known to the police, admits G. I hardly attended school and was on the fast lane to the world of crime. Then Nirim arrived in my neighborhood and started to gather boys and girls for the first group. I, the tough and independent guy, joined the group but was very clear in conveying the message that I do not need it.
G.s first year in Nirim was paved with crises, and he was even expelled from school. Nirims staff stepped in and the principal agreed to give him one last chance. Shortly thereafter, during a Nirim trek to the Nahal Infantry Brigades Monument, he rebelled and declared, Im not going to help anyone and I do not need anyones help. Golan, his counselor, recognized that this was a call for help and decided to go the whole nine yards. The next day he waited for G. at school with a huge backpack stuffed with enough equipment for the entire group. Come, he said decisively. You dont need anyone? Carry this backpack and lets go on a hike. For most of the hike they walked in silence. Towards the evening, they sat and started talking. Later I realized this was a fundamental milestone. My friends also noticed the change in me and were shocked to see my new attitude. From that day on I held my head up and walked the Nirim road. I graduated from high school with a diploma and faced the next step, army service, says G. proudly.
The decision he made to join a combat unit was not an easy one because he had genuinely wanted to serve near home in order to help support his parents. The only way you can support your family is by leaving the neighborhood, Golan told him. During his last leave from the IDF, G. joined a Nirim wilderness therapy trip as a counselor. The children looked at me with admiration. You and me are the same, I told them, and then I updated Golan that I am in line to be an officer, says G. with a triumphant smile.