Where the Chance to Be Normal Is Fantastic

A place offering treatment to disturbed children is about to close.

The path was too narrow for two people to walk side-by-side. On a stormy afternoon around 10 days ago, an eight-year-old girl stopped at the edge of the sidewalk and glanced fearfully over her shoulder. She didn't move before making sure that there was no one else on the path. Just a little while earlier, she got of a car and said good-bye to her mother without hesitation.

But once her mother had left, the girl seemed quite lost. A long time passed from the moment her mother left until she plucked up the nerve to proceed a little way along the path. And then she disappeared as if the earth had swallowed her up.

Most residents of this street in Jerusalem have no idea that in the public shelter hidden along a curve in the path there is a treatment center for children and youths with emotional and social problems. From the outside, the place looks abandoned. Inside, there is a whole other world, one for children only.

The large room used by the children is reminiscent of the backstage of a theater. There are costumes hanging and percussion and other musical instruments, a video camera and a stereo system. In the front room, the shelves are loaded with arts and crafts supplies. Just use your imagination. All items are means of expression so therapists observing the children can understand them better.

The shelter has many hidden niches. "For me, coming here after school, with all the struggles and confrontations I was engaged in, was an escape," says S., today a student in the 12th grade, who spent three years at Misholim and is now waiting to be drafted.

S. was a hyperactive child who took Ritalin. "Coming down the steps into this shelter for me was like hiding under the table or in a bush, far from the world and the people who scared me. A place of quiet," he says. D., his mother, is convinced that "without the treatment at Misholim, the chances of my son being drafted and living a routine and normal life were in the realm of the fantastic."

For over 20 years, this shelter and an additional one in the center of town, have been serving as the permanent home of the Misholim organization. In the winter, the place never warms up and recently, due to freezing temperatures, several parents canceled their children's participation. Despite the shameful conditions, over the years hundreds of children have received treatment that "provided them with crutches" they needed to go on to lead a normal, says Yaki Singer, one of the therapists.

Today, the center's 12 art therapists treat some 60 children between the ages of four and 16 who are referred by welfare offices, mental health clinics and psychologists. For some of the children, the place where they go for two afternoons a week for an hour-and-a-half is an alternative to being put in a psychiatric institution.

Who comes to Misholim? The invisible children in the class, the ones who are ignored: the rejected, the loners, those who aren't invited to parties and always sit on the side; the children who are disruptive, the provocateurs, who can disrupt a whole class, the teachers' biggest fear. These contrary behaviors, explains Elizabeth, one of the therapists, indicate two sides of the same problem: inability to establish a connection and confusion in understanding social codes.

At Misholim, children's introverted or wild behavior is seen as a call for help. Many children who come here are from homes where the mother is a single parent who spent time in shelters for abused women, were born premature or are adopted. As a rule, they are children whose receptors to family problems are more sensitive and have endured more.

Working in small groups is essential for rebuilding the children's social behavior. The groups are of mixed ages (up until age 10; the older groups are for just one age group). Each group has two art therapists, a man and a woman. This structure mimics the family situation and makes it possible to treat problems that pop up in real time, as if in a makeshift laboratory.

Nevertheless, very soon these children may find themselves without an address to turn to and may go back to being invisible: Misholim, which has always functioned on a minimal budget, is suffering from financial difficulties, as is the fate of all nonprofit organizations during a recession. Donations have stopped coming in and more parents are unemployed and in need of assistance. At Misholim, parents pay based on their economic ability to pay: Only a handful of families pay the full cost of treatment.

Jerusalem's coffers close

Three years ago, the Jerusalem Municipality announced that it would no longer transfer the (minuscule) sum it had been relaying until then because it was bankrupt. The only remaining support comes from the Ministry of Education and that has gradually decreased over the years. Recently, the Psychological Consulting Services announced that the Ministry of Education is also no longer able to provide the minuscule annual budget of NIS 250,000 that it had until then because "the children do not meet the criteria for special education."

"They told me that I don't have enough special education children. That's absurd," says Noa Eran, the director of Misholim. "After all, these kids aren't in special education thanks to our treatment. And that's how it was in recent years. It's unclear to me what has changed in the criteria."

Eran is infuriated by the Catch 22 that if these children were in special ed, there would be a budget for them. "Is the Ministry of Education waiting for their situation to deteriorate in order to provide funding for them?" she asks.

In response, the Ministry of Education reiterated the dense sentence about criteria and declined to elaborate on it, which only intensified the suspicion that the budget cut was done at random. In the same breath, the Ministry of Education stated that because "Misholim's activities are welcome and deserving, the ministry would look to see if there are is another way to help it."

Because Misholim's purse is empty (the Ministry of Education transferred the money for last year on December 31) and it is impossible to continue this way, Eran, Misholim's director, is watching her life's work go down the drain. It is just a matter of time, she warns, until "these children deteriorate and need special education."

More than 20 years ago, Eran, a guidance counselor (who did supplementary training in art therapy), established Misholim out of a sense of urgency. As part of her work, she saw in psychiatric hospitals many children who, she says, did not need to be institutionalized. She and two colleagues in her profession, which was still not developed in Israel, decided to open an afternoon treatment center to enable children to come after school and avoid the need to be hospitalized.

The mother of S., who is now a tall boy of almost 1.90 meters, has no trouble remembering the rejected boy he used to be. He was a "a different child," a boy who spoke German and wore thick glasses. It wasn't easy for him, she says, to cope with the kids in his school, who called him "German" and "Nazi." Because he couldn't express himself, he opted for violence. At Misholim, she says, the children learn to understand their problem, to communicate it to others and to deal with it.

"I'm hyperactive. I used to hit other kids and my sisters. I didn't know how to control myself," says S. "I didn't care what I did. Once we were at a camp during summer vacation. It was when I was in fifth grade. We got into a fight with big kids. I was so angry I started throwing chairs. No one could understand me. Often I'd come home from school crying. I didn't fit in."

How does he explain the change in himself at Misholim?

"There, under the ground, you can suddenly feel like you belong and fit in," he says.

Therapist Yaki Singer deals a lot with this question of not fitting in. Singer is well acquainted with the other half of the equation. At his other job (the salary at Misholim is not enough to live on), he meets those who dropped out of routine life when they were kids and are now emotionally disturbed 20- to 30-year-olds. He works with them as a therapist and has no doubt about how the lives of the children who come to Misholim will look without the treatment they get there.

"I have one 30-year-old patient who talks of these very same experiences of social isolation. Over the years, he didn't have a single friend. They made fun of him. He carries those scars with him to this day. I'm sure that without the group therapy, half of the kids will go into special ed and the other half will suffer. Of them, 10 percent will embark on a path of emotional disturbances and 10 percent will deteriorate into crime."