WIZO Ahuzat Yeladim in Haifa (sponsored by WIZO Australia) is a therapeutic and post-hospitalization residential treatment facility which is home to 100 youth who suffer from behavioural, emotional, and psychiatric problems.
In an in-depth interview, Yossi Saragossi talks about WIZO Ahuzat Yeladim, a specialized residential therapeutic school for children who suffer from behavioral or emotional problems, which he has directed for 16 years
On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the establishment of WIZO Ahuzat Yeladim in Haifa,Yossi told local Haifa news outlet Colbo News about the changes it has undergone over the years, on the decision to focus more on children with mental-emotional problems than children with behavioural problems, on the stigmas, achievements, and even failures. “When we succeed,” he says, “it’s a wonderful feeling.”
WIZO Ahuzat Yeladim was founded in 1939 as a refuge for Holocaust orphans. In 1942 legendary principal Benjamin Jonas turned it into an educational boarding school for children. Over the years, the facility has absorbed immigrant and native Israeli children referred by the welfare services due to poverty and distress, parental disability or illness, parental dysfunction or the child’s desire to integrate and advance in society. At the end of the period of mass immigration of Jews from the Soviet Union and Ethiopia, Ahuzat Yeladim began to absorb mainly children with difficulties, specialising in catering to those with mental health issues.
Yossi, what are the changes that occurred during your time here at Ahuzat Yeladim?
“We made quite a few changes, first of all in the population we serve. In the beginning, most of the students were mainstream, but from complex homes. It started back when we had children with post-hospitalisation profiles, that is, children with more mental health/emotional problems than behavioural problems. Over the last 20 years, the population has become more severe. We are talking about children who have spent extended periods of time in extended psychiatric hospitalisations.”
And not necessarily from broken and troubled homes?
“Not necessarily. We are talking about children who have experienced traumas of all kinds – emotional, physical, and sexual. There are children who come from psychiatric hospitals, from emergency centres and other boarding schools, even from special education institutions similar to ours but where they did not succeed. WIZO Ahuzat Yeladim is considered an end-of-the-line (last chance) boarding school. We also have children here who fail to integrate into a psychiatric hospital, a youth protection institution that is an institution for children with delinquent problems, or youth who would otherwise be living on the street. At first there was one group of post-hospitalisation children, then we grew to three groups, and today the boarding school is defined as a post-hospitalisation treatment boarding school, which is where most of the children here are. This year we have 70 students, only 10 of which are not defined as post-hospitalisation cases. In our Ahuza Ha’ktana facility we treat children as young as 8 years old, all of whom are defined as post-traumatic.
Eight years old? Isn’t this a middle school and high school?
“The school is a six-year school for special education, but about nine years ago, with the transition to another type of population, we started to accept young children with behavioural problems, and for the last two years they have all been post-hospitalisation children. They are really young, 8 years old, who study outside the village in special education schools in Haifa. The entire population is defined as post-traumatic but is normative, there is no educational lag here, no disabilities.”
What is the percentage who finish school?
“First, it is not obvious that they will graduate. We know how they got started, we know the families, and are aware of the potholes along the way. Not everything is sweet and we don’t succeed with everyone either. Caring for these youth is a very big responsibility, and you tell yourself that there are many more children in the State of Israel that you are unable to help. And when you get them you have to bring them to the finish line, do everything to get them there. We do from A to Z for the child, but if the child does not want it, it will not work. We consult about the children and the first thing we look into is our work with them – what we did and what we could do more or differently – we try to learn why the children eventually dropped out. Usually the reason is a reluctance to accept the framework. ”
How do you feel when someone quits midway? How do you deal with your emotions?
“There are children that I decide to let leave because they are unsuitable, and some I fight for and still fail. It doesn’t happen much, usually they realise this is the place for them. The dropout rates in recent years are very low but do exist.
How do I feel? If there are boys and girls here who use violence or drug traffickers – that’s a red line. We make great efforts to succeed as much as possible and we have some very nice successes.”
Can you share one?
“Every kid who graduates here is a success story. There was one teenager here for more than four years with severe behavioural and social problems.He did not want to be here and did not understand why he was here. After about a year, he improved his behaviour and was the first graduate of the bakery track, Despite his past difficulties, he enlisted in the IDF in the prestigious Golani brigrade.”
Most boys enlist in the military?
“Some of the graduates enlist in the IDF, those who can of course. Sometimes we want it more than the children themselves, because we know that serving in the IDF opens doors for the future and remove stigmas. We have a good dialogue with the army. There is an IDF representative that adivses the alumni before recruitment.”
What is the goal of Ahuzat Yeladim?
WIZO Ahuzat Yeladim’s goal is to bring children back to normative functioning within the community. The expectations of them are to be able to stand up and use their hands and minds to avoid being a burden on society, through the teaching of vocations.
What is the connection WIZO Australia and Ahuzat Yeladim?
Over the years, we have built a very strong bond with our sponsoring federation, WIZO Australia, which generously opened their hearts as well as their pockets. The result has been the ability to raise substantial donations towards massive renovations and the construction of a new school with professional certificate studies including: cosmetics, a student bakery, dog training and more. Graduates receive a professional diploma after passing a practical and theoretical examinations.
We have a very professional bakery, and the kids learn and make amazing things and sell their baked goods. Also in the cosmetics track they make all kinds of organic creams which are really nice.”
The newly renovated Jonas dormitory on the Ahuzat Yeladim campus
I understand some of the older students also have part-time jobs. How does that work?
“To allow the students to integrate into society there is a project for students from the age of 16 and up. Once a week, the students go out to work in the Haifa community. We have a close relationship with several employers – the Haifa port, day care centres, hairdressers, supermarkets, etc.. Every boy or girl here chooses where they want to work. We have to teach responsibility, to get up in the morning, make lunch for themselves, catch the right bus and come back on time. ”
On my way to your office, I saw many renovated areas on campus.
“Yes, we have recreational areas, a therapeutic garden, music and computer rooms, outdoor sports facilities and a gym. We really try to let the children find their place.
Our treatment team consists of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers who give all types of treatment and are centralized on campus. We renovated all the residential buildings with the help of WIZO Australia. Today, two or three students sleep in each room. They have toilets and showers in the room and everything is of course air-conditioned. We also have a a new dining room and kitchen and a new library.
Do you have volunteers here?
Yes, we have a fantastic group of high school graduates doing their year of service at Ahuzat Yeladim before they go to the army. They supplement our permanent staff. We have a very large team here – two staff members for each student.”
Where do the students go during the summer holidays?
WIZO Ahuzat Yeladim is open all year. We are never closed. There is no day without children here. I only evacuated them when there was that big fire in the area a few years ago or God forbid a missile attack. This place is open all the time, and the kids know the door is open for them, even during holidays. We will never leave a child here without a Passover Seder or a Rosh Hashana eve dinner to go to. There are some who stay here, but they stay with the staff and their families who live in the village in the staff quarters.”
What’s your dream?
“I am 63-years-old now and before I retire I’d love to set up a graduate’s home here for young people over the age of 18. We must understand that at the age of 18 many of our graduates still require guidance and support.”
“I have been at WIZO Ahuzat Yeladim in Haifa for a total of 38 years. This is my 16th year as its director. I really appreciate being given the opportunity to work here. My life is here. It was built here. I not only give, but also receive a lot from Ahuzat Yeladim. It is a great privilege to be here and try to help the children in every way I possibly can. When we manage to do that, it’s a wonderful feeling