An Israeli child enjoys an activity at one of the Hole in the Wall camps in the U.S.The idea for the Jordan River Village – ‘the place in the Middle East where sick children can just be kids’ – took seed when Israelis Murray and Marilyn Grant went to a jazz concert in their native Connecticut six years ago.
“My wife saw a brochure for the Hall in Wall Camp. The next day she was reading it, and said to me ‘We have to bring this to Israel’,” recalled Grant during an interview with ISRAEL21c.
He was referring to the series of five camps in the U.S. (and one in France and one in Ireland) founded by American actor Paul Newman which offers children with life-threatening diseases and all-expenses paid vacation in the country with state of the art recreational, athletic and medical facilities at their beckoned call.
Now all those years later, the Grants’ dream is on its way to becoming a reality. This month saw the groundbreaking of the Jordan River Village Camp, a facility for children with serious illnesses near Givat Avni in the Lower Galilee.
The 60-acre camp, the eighth in the worldwide Hole in the Wall Camps Association, plans to host Jewish and Arab children from Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority. The village will be geared for youngsters aged nine to 18 with severe physical and mental disabilities or life-threatening ailments. The facility will have a swimming pool, theater, sports and leisure activities center, an art school and other attractions. A full medical staff will be in attendance around the clock to administer treatment and medication.
“A sick child is a sick child, no matter what ethnic background or religion,” Katia Citrin, executive director of the Camp, said at the ceremony.
Newman, who appeared in a video message at the ceremony and announced his donation of $500,000, said that in addition to improving the lives of the children, he hopes the camp “could be a bridge to better relations among neighbors.”
“The groundbreaking was way beyond our expectations,” said Grant. “Over 400 people were present including President Moshe Katsav, the mayor of Nazareth Ramez Jeraise who spoke in Hebrew and read a prayer in Arabic, Sheikh Moafaq Tarif, chairman of the Druse High Religious Council, and the counsel from the Jordanian Embassy.”
The project, the culmination of three years of planning and fund-raising, is scheduled to be completed within two years, even though only $12.5 million of the approximately $20m. needed to complete the facility has been secured.
“Our capital campaign is aiming for $25 million. Although it will cost $19-20 million to build the campus, we also want to have a residual side fund since nobody pays to go to this camp,” said Grant.
In the meantime, the Jordan River Village Foundation has found ways to help children in the region despite not having a facility to host them. A program called ‘Care with a Smile’ was initiated last year in order pick up the spirits of acutely ill children hospitalized in pediatric wards in Israel.
Professionals from the medical world and the theatrical world were trained to use humor and arts in the care of these children. This interaction (given on a permanent ongoing basis) helps ease the children’s transitions to the hospital, alleviating the emotional turmoil surrounding hospitalization and thus easing the administration of conventional treatment.
Project “Summer 2003″ – a project whose purpose was to send Israeli children to sister camps abroad – got underway in March 2003.
“Why should kids suffer? Since we don’t have a camp presently, for the last two years, we’ve sent children from Israel to camps in Ireland and the U.S.” explained Grant, now retired and living in Ramat Poleg, a suburb of Netanya.
Between June and August four groups of children traveled to two camps in the United States (Hole in the Wall Gang Camp and Double H Ranch) and one camp in Ireland (Barretstown). A total of 23 Jewish and Arab children with various illnesses participated in the project. The children?s medical conditions included cancer, blood diseases, thalassemia, hemophilia, celebral palsy and muscular dystrophy.
“Three youngsters who attended sister camps in the U.S. last summer also spoke at the groundbreaking,” said Grant, “an Arab girl and a Jewish boy and girl, and they told about how they had the time of their lives, and how they’re still in touch with each other.”
Grant hopes that experience will soon be available to children from the region without having to travel abroad.
One of the active members of the Jordan River Valley Association is Aviva Peterburg from Ramat Hasharon. She and her husband Moshe lost their daughter Sharon to leukemia five years ago when Sharon was eight.
In order to try to help her forget her suffering, Aviva and Sharon decided on a tour abroad together with a large suitcase full of medicines, loaded with documents to show to any doctor that they might meet. Sharon started to feel bad at the amusement park. So they packed up immediately and returned to Israel, to the hospitals and the doctors.
Peterberg told Ma’ariv that if there had been a Village in Israel like the “Jordan River Village”, it would have been much easier to deal with the illness, and there would have been no need to go so far and travel abroad. “I knew a while ago that a Village like this was being planned in Israel”, said Aviva who has since joined the Board of Directors of the Village.
Israeli children won’t be the only ones taking advantage of the village facilities. Plans are underway for making the Jordan River facility a true regional project with the involvement of Israel’s neighbors.
“Cooperation with Palestinians and neighboring countries has been initiated, but it’s been quiet. We don’t want to make a lot of noise about it since we don’t plan on opening until sometime in 2006,” said Grant.
But thanks to the groundbreaking and the resultant publicity, work on the building and the landscaping will start at the beginning of next year. And for the children of the region in need of its facilities, it’s not a moment too soon.