For Irishman Captain Gerry Casey, now serving with the UN, a year of service in Israel proved a lifesaver for his Down syndrome child.
Earlier this month Jerusalem’s quiet, Orthodox neighborhood of Har Nof became the center of international attention as representatives of UNTSO (United Nations Truce Supervision Organization) and members of the diplomatic corps representing the United States, Finland, Venezuela, Uganda and more, came to the headquarters of Shalva, the Association for Mentally and Physically Challenged Children to honor its service to the international community.
Over 100 distinguished guests, together with their spouses and their children enjoyed a tour of Shalva and a casual buffet lunch while being entertained by the Shalva band. Honored guests included James Carroll, special representative (Ireland) to Palestinian Authority and Colonel Timo Rotonen (Finland), deputy chief of staff – UNTSO.
The tribute was arranged by Captain Gerry Casey (Irish Defense Forces working with UNTSO) and his wife Theresa, who hosted their friends and colleagues at Shalva for a celebration of the wonderful year their daughter, Rachel, spent with us. Rachel, now two and a half, spent this past year in Shalva’s Me & My Mommy Program and both she and her parents made friendships that will last a lifetime. The family is scheduled to return to Dublin, Ireland, this coming January and a most fitting ‘send-off’ is planned.
The story of Rachel’s journey to Shalva began in August 2008, when Andrea Simantov, then director of communications, was giving a tour of Shalva to a large group from the US and at the end of the visit – as per standard practice – the group posed for a photograph outside the center. Andrea handed the camera to a man she presumed was the bus driver and asked him to take a few photos. Happily he complied and the group went on its way.
Imagine her surprise when she saw someone else driving the bus and the fellow that she had presumed was the driver still sitting in the entrance plaza. “Can I help you?” she asked. He replied in a very strong Irish accent, “My name is Captain Gerry Casey and I’m with the UN Peacekeeping Division from Ireland.” He proceeded to tell her that he was scheduled to begin a year’s rotation in Israel, primarily because the youngest of his four children – 16-month-old Rachel – was born with Down syndrome and a severe heart defect. The doctor in Ireland strongly urged Gerry and his wife Theresa to take her to a warm climate in order to heal.
Pulling up in a Hummer jeep
Knowing that Israel was a medically advanced country, he came on an exploratory visit and on a sunny Friday morning, he went directly to Hadassah in Mount Scopus where he was told by a visiting patient that he was in the wrong place. “You want to go to Shalva. They are the specialists.” Gerry resolved to go there the next day.
His arrival, with his wife, Theresa, and daughter, Rachel, caused quite the stir. Pulling up in front of Shalva, Gerry emerged from a huge Hummer jeep that was adorned with the UN insignia. And he was wearing full military regalia, i.e., camouflage fatigues, high laced leather boots, medals and other decorative pins, and dark green beret.
Yet, from the moment they entered the program, they became part of the Shalva family. In Ireland, little Rachel was entitled to three hours of speech therapy per month but at Shalva she received three hours of therapy per day. Hydrotherapy, massage therapy, speech training, physiotherapy, and multi-sensory work were only some of the disciplines that were part of Rachel’s standard treatment. And because the Me & My Mommy curriculum relies on parental partnership, Theresa was enthralled with her newfound skills. Envisioning their eventual return to Ireland, she felt better equipped and greatly inspired by her Israel experience.
The Casey’s were so overwhelmed by their new friendships and eye-opening experiences that they vowed to invite their friends in the international and diplomatic communities to share a glimpse of the Israeli world that they had discovered. As Gerry readily admits that, were it not for his sick little girl, he most probably would never have had the opportunity to cross paths with regular Jerusalemites and other Israelis outside of the United Nations and east Jerusalem communities.
In the words of Irish ambassador to Israel, Breifne O’Reilly: “If I had to bring one message to the world after visiting with the impressive people at Shalva, I’d say that this is a magical world of hope.”
Sid Slivko is the director of Communications at Shalva, the Association for Mentally & Physically Challenged Children in Israel.