‘My goal is to make youth believe in themselves, believe that they can do something,’ says Meirav Ben-Ari.Winning more than a million dollars on a television reality show was just the beginning of the dream for 30-year-old Israeli Meirav Ben-Ari. The Netanya native won the grand prize from Seeking: A Leader (Darush: Manig), a reality show that took the profit-driven premise of Donald Trump’s Apprentice and turns it on its head.
Instead of competing for a prestigious and highly lucrative job with the Trump organization, the winner of this program earned an altogether different kind of prize; the means to help those in need. So in beating the 11 other contestants, Ben-Ari didn’t become the country’s latest millionaire – her reward was being provided with money to open a center for at-risk youth in her hometown. And she couldn’t be happier.
“I think that if I hadn’t won this money I would be doing this anyway, but it would take me another five or six years,” Ben-Ari told ISRAEL21c. “The TV show gave me the short road to do what I want to do, now.”
With the prize money, Ben-Ari, a lawyer by training, has created ‘Through Challenge’, an after-school program aimed at helping troubled youths build self-esteem and confidence through a combination of traditional after-school activities such as tutoring and mentoring, and more innovative techniques using what Ben-Ari calls “challenge sports.” Climbing walls, kickboxing, judo, combat/survival games, kayaking and windsurfing are all part of the curriculum for the 70 boys who started the program in February. For Ben-Ari, a devotee of extreme sports, it’s the sport element that will be critical to the program’s success.
“Sports can make you stronger, help you believe in yourself. Sport is the instrument – not the goal. I’m not trying to create the next judo fighter. I’m trying to help youth believe in themselves,” she said.
Ben-Ari’s commitment and focus were evident as she managed the building’s final touches in the week before the center opened last month. Moving seamlessly between a program meeting with one of her counselors, an interview with a reporter, and a good-natured but firm discussion with an electrician who hadn’t installed enough electricity to operate both the lights and the computers, Ben-Ari displayed the combination of personal magnetism and professional determination that turned this idea into reality in just eight months. As one colleague explained, “If you look up charisma in the dictionary, you’ll see Meirav’s picture there.”
She was advised by staff from the Sacta-Rashi Foundation, a foundation that funds and helps operate projects for disadvantaged groups in Israel and the source of the reality show’s prize money. With advice from senior program developers, Ben-Ari built the project from the ground up, developing her model, creating a budget, hiring staff, locating and renovating a building, and working with the city of Netanya to make sure it all went smoothly.
“She’s a pusher,” says Ofer Nahari, Program Developer for the Sacta Rashi Foundation. “She works hard against the bureaucracy. It’s not a reality TV show – the purest reality is dealing with [city] bureaucracy.”
The idea for the center came while Ben-Ari was the recipient of a scholarship from the International Sephardic Education Foundation (ISEF) to study law at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. The terms of the grant required that Ben-Ari volunteer somewhere locally for four hours a week. She tutored in an after-school program for troubled kids where she got to know the children and studied both their needs and what the municipally-funded center could provide. What she saw was an often over-crowded, under-financed center unable to truly meet the needs of disadvantaged kids. “[Working there] gave me a vision of how to make it better,” she says.
She had the idea – and winning Darush: Manhig gave her the means. “I got my great opportunity,” acknowledges Ben-Ari. And she’s determined to use it to help kids in danger of falling through the cracks.
The ‘Through Challenge’ program divides the boys, who range in age from 13-15, into four groups, led by four experienced counselors. The children, all students in Netanya schools, were recommended to the program by teachers and administrators who spotted in each one the need for extra attention. They come to the center after school, eat a hot lunch, and then participate in various programs including leadership training, tutoring, workshops on the dangers of drugs and violence, and sports activities.
There’s no one ‘type’ of participant in the program. Most of the kids are from working class and poorer backgrounds. Some have emotional problems, some social, some just cant seem to make it in school. They’re from Ethiopian, Russian and Israeli backgrounds and for various reasons they aren’t getting the support they need at home or at school. Ben-Ari believes that by challenging them through sport, the kids will develop the self-esteem they need to succeed in life.
“I think those young kids got a big prize,” says Erez Roimi, from the ISEF, the organization that helped Ben-Ari attain her degree. “She’s not someone who will open a project and leave it. She will continue to build it from its base.”
“Meirav’s project is an example of the kind of empowerment we should be giving to youth,” explains Roimi, who works with social development programs for ISEF. “Each young man who leaves her center will be an ambassador to his community, to his family and to his friends. They will see what is possible.”
Ben-Ari has decided to limit the program to boys, to start, because she believes that at these tender ages mixing boys and girls can put too much of a strain on the program.
“My boys ask me why I don’t bring girls and I say wait. I intend to do it, but wait. It’s a new place, a brand new place, everything is new. The walls, the windows and the people. I want to study, I want to learn, I want to do better and better, and then I can afford to bring tension to this place.”
The casually chic, slightly tomboyish Ben-Ari knows how important a helping hand can be. Born in Ra’anana, her parents divorced when she was two and her family moved to Netanya when she was 10. Her family wasn’t poor, she explains, but her mother worked hard to get the basics for her and her sister and there wasn’t any money left over for ‘extras’.
“I went to work when I was 13 [selling ice cream] so if I wanted something I bought it myself,” she said.
This work ethic drove Ben-Ari to serve for five years in the Golani Unit of the Israeli army (three more than required), three of them as an officer. After the army, she, like so many young Israelis, traveled the world, visiting Nepal, Australia, New Zealand and India. Always interested in sports, it was while traveling that Ben-Ari started doing more extreme sports such as bungee jumping in New Zealand and scuba diving in Australia.
Today, her brainchild is combining her passion for social action with her belief in the power of sport. Through determination, hard work, and not a little luck, Ben-Ari is building a platform to help those who are in danger of being left behind by Israeli society.
“My goal is to make youth believe in themselves, believe that they can do something. I can’t take someone and help his family make more money,” explained Ben-Ari. “But I can help him understand that there is another way.”