• Youth Futures mentors serve more than 12,000 children at risk each year.

    David Salem

Giving Hope to Israeli children at Risk

"Youth Futures", a flagship program of The Jewish Agency for Israel, trains mentors to help and inspire 12,000 children who lost hope

How do you turn around a young life at risk? Among the thousands of programs that try, one in Israel stands out for transforming its participating children and mentors in a model you’ll find nowhere else in the world.

Welcome to "Youth Futures", a flagship program of The Jewish Agency for Israel. By matching Israel’s most vulnerable children with inspiring young adult mentors, Youth Futures provides a spark of hope for children and their loved ones who thought all hope was lost.

The program trains mentors to guide 16 children each, in different circles of intervention over three to five years: Personal, familial, social and educational, with an emphasis on full parental involvement and partnership.

Merav Ifargan, from Dimona in the Negev, is among Youth Futures’ 300 mentors. Ifargan herself is a story of triumph – an impassioned young mother who knows the power of resilience. She has three children, one of whom has special needs, as well as one month-old foster boy to whom her heart could not say no. And she didn’t stop there.

Ifargan signed up for Youth Futures and has never regretted it a day. "The more you give, the more your heart grows", she says, "and the more you want to give. When Youth Futures matched me with a precious child, it was the privilege of my life".

Ifargan has a ready answer for others impressed with her sacrifice. "Don’t you get it?” she asks. "I’m the one who should be grateful. My mentee has changed my life as much as I hope I’ve changed his".

Ifargran’s enthusiasm always centers on the children she has grown to love. "We receive children of various backgrounds who face different challenges. The first thing we do is to speak with them, not to them, to understand how they’d like to grow. We don’t dictate the terms of happier or more productive life. We seek to advance the happiness and contributions of every child, whichever the obstacles we surmount together, as unique gifts worthy of universal respect".

Some 12,000 children, from 36 blue-collar communities across Israel’s periphery, are enlisted in the program. From newborns to 18-year-olds, participants have different needs, but all need love.

Earlier that week a boy told Ifargan he wished “God would erase him from this world". Despair is common, and the answer is always empathy and warm encouragement. "God has plenty of good things in store for you", Ifargan told him. “Be strong, and in time you will be the one to support and teach other children in need".

"I’m not sure he believed me", she says, “but that’s okay. I know that deep down he heard me".

All the mentors work full time, but the workday is hardly 9 to 5. Mentors meet the children at school or at home, and accompany them to social activities. Ifargan recalls a phone call from a teenage girl who threatened to kill herself on a Friday evening a few years back. It was shortly before Shabbat. "I dropped everything", Ifargan said, driving the 25 miles to Beer Sheva, where she finally located her mentee in the city’s central bus station.

The chance to speak with Ifargan came during Youth Futures’ professional training on the Kinneret, an annual event that empowers mentors through education and shared experiences.

Esther Assiya, 40, is from Migdal HaEmek in northern Israel. She has been a mentor with Youth Futures for eight years. "I often see myself in the children I’m helping", she says.

Assiya recounts a litany of hardships she endured from her birth in Ethiopia. She lived in a refugee camp in Sudan where she was separated from her family, and then had to acclimate to a new society in Israel, and simultaneously to boarding school.

"I was living on the outside but dead inside", she says. In 1991, she was finally reunited with her parents, who were among the 14,325 Jews airlifted to Israel in Operation Solomon. Even that happy occasion proved difficult.

"My father could barely recognize me. I told him that with everything I had to go through, how could I be the same person?".

Assiya invokes her remarkable story of resilience to inspire children of Ethiopian descent who can benefit from a role model. "I was working with a boy whose clinically depressed single mother was unable to care for her seven children", she says. "I realized that to help the child, I needed first to help the mother".

But familiarity is a double-edged sword. The mother was offended “when a person coming from the same culture suggested she needed help".

In moments like that, Assiya asks children or parents to look her in the eyes, telling them, “if I was able to turn my life around, so can you".

Joining the mentors at Youth Futures’ professional training the program’s director of resource development, Denor Hatmi Ben Shushan. She "can’t stress enough" how Youth Futures is at the core of The Jewish Agency’s activity.

"We help children gain confidence and develop their talents and abilities. We empower parents and inspire entire families. We give Israeli children and families a future filled with hope. What can be more in line with the values and objectives of The Jewish Agency for Israel?".

06 Jan 2019 / 29 Tevet 5779 0
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