LARGER THAN LIFE

A MUCH-NEEDED OASIS

In addition to all the obvious hardships young cancer patients must face, they are unable to attend regular schools – sometimes for several years. A unique educational and recovery center for young children with cancer in the Tel Aviv area provides a crucial solution, and a second school is now being planned for Be’er Sheva

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When a young child is diagnosed with cancer, the lives of all the family members are turned topsy-turvy from one minute to the next. The previous “normal” routine is replaced by an emotional roller-coaster of treatments, operations, medical tests, hospitals and doctors – with parents typically overwhelmed by the need to care for their sick child 24/7 while trying not to neglect their other children.

Larger Than Life, an organization dedicated to supporting Israeli families facing pediatric cancer, provides vital assistance on many levels: medical assistance for life-saving treatments, financial assistance, special summer camps, fun events, “Dream” trips and more. “Our goal is to provide medical, psychological, and social support for all the children regardless of ethnicity and religion. In the midst of an unimaginable ordeal, Larger Than Life provides solid, practical solutions to a myriad of questions that would otherwise be unanswerable to the children and their families,” explains Larger Than Life CEO Lior Shmueli.

Friendly as a preschool, sterile as a hospital

Several years ago, Larger Than Life conducted a focus group to see how else the organization could help the patients and their families. Some of the parents mentioned that one of the biggest problems is that the younger children have no framework aside from their home and, at times, the hospital. They are very lonely and have no friends. Also, the fact that they must spend so much time at home is extremely stressful for the parents, whose full-time job now becomes caring for the child at home, which means quitting whatever job they had – with all the financial implications. The fact that these small children are so isolated also affects their development at this critical stage of their lives.

Larger Than Life immediately understood what they needed to do – and in September 2014 “Kindergarten of Dreams” opened its doors in Ramat Gan, welcoming children between the ages of six months to seven years who have cancer. A random visitor to the “gan” (Hebrew for both daycare and preschool) is immediately struck by its friendly, upbeat atmosphere and its pleasant playground, as well as by the fact that it is unusually neat, clean and wonderfully imaginative.

A closer inspection reveals several key differences. “The gan was designed by architects who are experts in designing both schools and hospitals,” reveals Ayelet Rafalin, Kindergarten of Dreams’ devoted director. “The structure conforms to all the standards of an isolation room in a hospital. There is a special air-conditioning system, special windows with special shades for children undergoing chemotherapy, since they aren’t allowed to be exposed to sunlight, and a unique sterile playground with toys that can be disinfected. Also, the paint on the walls is antibacterial and the whole place is disinfected every day.”

Unlike a hospital, however, Kindergarten of Dreams is colorful, cheerful and optimistic. The children enjoy the same activities and curriculum as their healthy peers – arts and crafts, story hour, learning in small groups, celebrating birthdays and holidays, playing with their friends in the playground, etc. The therapeutic benefits of this normal routine are unequivocal, and it enables the kids to enjoy their childhood the way they should.

Children are accepted to the preschool on condition that their doctor approves their attendance. The child-staff ratio of 3-1 is significantly higher than in regular Israeli preschools, and parents know that their children are in excellent hands. In addition to teachers, there are physical therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, developmental psychologists, and other experts on the staff. They work intensively with each child, according to his or her specific needs – with the goal of trying to improve their physical and emotional condition as much as possible.

Up to 50 children attend Kindergarten of Dreams at any given time, divided into three age groups: six months to 3 years, 3 to 5, and 5 to 7. “The largest group is the youngest one, since no other gan would be able to accept them,” says Ayelet. The gan is open from 7:30 am until 4:30 pm and the children receive a nutritious hot lunch prepared on the premises. “We adapt the menu to the kids’ needs. One Mom told me that her son is only willing to eat specific foods when he undergoes steroid treatments, and we respect that,” she adds.

Enabling a regular routine

Peleg, an adorable 3-year old who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor on her second birthday, just started her second year at Kindergarten of Dreams. “She was originally diagnosed with pneumonia,” recalls her father, Nir, “but her condition worsened, and we decided to cancel a jeep trip planned for her birthday and, instead, we took her to the ER that morning. An MRI showed that she had a large tumor in her brain; that evening she was transferred to Ichilov Hospital and that same night she underwent the first of a series of operations.” The family then traveled to the U.S. for several months so that Peleg could receive a particular type of radiation treatment.

When the family returned to Israel, Peleg was very weak and could neither walk nor even stand up on her own. Her parents started to look for a suitable setting for her to go with her Mom, Keren, so that she wouldn’t have to be home all the time. A social worker recommended Kindergarten of Dreams. At first, the parents were skeptical. “We went to an introductory meeting for parents last summer, and we saw that there is a large staff with a strong connection to the medical world and that they really cater to each kid’s needs. The amount of attention each child receives is amazing,” says Nir.

It was only when Peleg started attending the gan that her parents truly understood its significance. “It enabled us to have a regular routine. We never believed we would get up in the morning, leave her in the gan, go to work, and know that she’s in a safe place. And it enabled Peleg to have a normal, happy life. She has friends; she loves the staff; and she sees herself as being like everyone else,” Nir enthuses, adding that Peleg has improved greatly and, thankfully, there are no signs of the tumor returning.

Second school planned for Be’er Sheva

According to the Ministry of Health, approximately half of the 200 children with cancer in Israel up to age 7 live in the southern periphery – Jewish, Arab, and Bedouin children. Many of them come from low socio-economic backgrounds, and many of their families do not have the means to help their children cope with the illness, let alone take care of their special educational needs.

Following the unequivocal success of Kindergarten of Dreams in the Tel Aviv area, Larger Than Life realized that it is crucial to build a similar facility in Be’er Sheva. Set to open in 2019, Be’er Sheva’s Kindergarten of Dreams will include an extended Educational Center that will provide schooling and care for children in grades 1 to 4 (ages 7 to 11), in addition to preschool for younger kids. Located near Be’er Sheva’s Soroka Medical Center, the new school will have four classrooms, a toddlers’ nursery, a Gymboree play area, and a multi-purpose room for various activities.

“With the building of the new Kindergarten of Dreams in Be’er Sheva, families in the Negev will have access to educational and social opportunities that otherwise would have been denied to them. Cancer steals so much from childhood. We are poised to ensure that a child undergoing cancer treatment can experience as much of the joyful and formative opportunities as their cancer-free peers,” asserts Larger Than Life CEO Lior Shmueli.

For more information about Larger than Life, go to www.gdolim.org.

To donate to the Kindergarten of Dreams in Be’er Sheva, please contact: Tel. +972-3-6195977 or Bonnie@gdolim.org.il or Ellin@gdolim.org.il.