August 14, 2005

Etgarim helps the disabled fulfill their dreams through kayaking, parasailing, skiing, scuba diving and skydiving.Israeli youngsters regularly tour the country’s natural and historical sites as part of their school curriculum – field trips spent exploring the country is considered an essential element of their education.

But Ariela Mizan, stricken with polio as a baby and paralyzed from the waist down, was never allowed to go along when the rest of her class went on an outing when she was growing up.

Confined to a wheelchair, she was told that she would “hold back the rest of the group.” And Ariela stayed home, alone, never once sniffing a flower in the open field, or watching a waterfall rush madly down desert cliffs.

Hopefully, the days when children with disabilities are forced to stay behind are finally over. With the recent introduction into Israel of a rickshaw-like vehicle called the gilgulon, youngsters with disabilities can venture into nature just like their able-bodied contemporaries. So can adults, including Ariela Mizan. At the end of a recent nature trip she spoke passionately about the experience. “In my wildest dreams I never thought I would “walk” through a riverbed, or reach the top of Mount Hermon.” she said.

While the gilgulon is a French invention, Israel has expanded and developed its use. A great deal of that progress has come from a unique non-profit organization dedicated to helping people with disabilities realize their potential.

Etgarim, or “Challenges,” was founded in 1995 by Yoel Sharon, who had been studying cinematography in London when Israel was attacked by its Arab neighbors in 1973. An officer in the paratroop brigade, he rushed back to his homeland to take part in the war. On the very last day of fighting he was wounded in the city of Suez – one of only three members of his platoon to remain alive. But a direct hit to the spine left him without the use of his legs.

“After the injury, one thing remained clear,” he told ISRAEL21c, while he watched six small children with physical disabilities begin a challenging nature trip through the Judean hills atop six gilgulonim. “I would not give up my dream – I would become a movie director!” Since then, Yoel has produced, directed and written countless feature film and documentaries, proving to himself and to everyone who knew him that virtually nothing is impossible.

About a decade ago, Yoel began to notice that numerous wounded terror victims, injured veterans, and other people with disabilities seemed to have abandoned their dreams. That’s when he came up with what he believed to be a solution: if they were able to participate in challenging outdoor sports, he felt, they would realize that they could overcome their personal challenges as well.

“When I put my idea into words, the people I approached thought I was crazy,” he related. But he persisted, and over the past 10 years Etgarim has made nearly two dozen branches of adventurous sport and recreation accessible to people with physical, mental and emotional disabilities. Among them: kayaking, parasailing, snow skiing, scuba diving and skydiving. “I keep hearing people say, ‘why didn’t we come up with this idea a long time ago?'”

When Samantha Gluckman was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 19, she realized she would soon have to give up scuba diving and the other outdoor sports that she loved. After her early discharge from the army, she went on to study geography – but couldn’t go out into the field with the other university students. Her situation was grim.

A few years of sports activities with Etgarim, however, built up her confidence. She scuba dived in Mexico, and was unapologetic about the fact that sometimes she had to ask for help. “Before Etgarim I wouldn’t have dared even to try,” she told ISRAEL21c.

Etgarim uses challenging sports and recreational activities as educational tools that teach the younger set how to take advantage of their potential. Over 5,000 children and youths take part in this educational project on a permanent basis, helped by 600 volunteers from all over the country. “Basically, the message was this: a child in a wheelchair can live a normal active life!” says Hagar Nir, Director of Resources at Etgarim.

Some youngsters in the Etgarim educational project make it into the army. One of them is Or-El Galula, who is confined to a wheelchair, yet successfully completed an officers’ course last December. Or-El was the first and only disabled wheelchair user in the world to train in a regular Army officer’s course.

“Our people take part in Paralympics, and in Athens 2004 we won the gold medal in sailing,” Yoel reports proudly. Etgarim has already received seven major awards for its outstanding contribution to Israeli society.

Gilgulonim are the newest additions to Etgarim’s sports and recreation arsenal. They were donated last year by Avner and Yael Badihi, whose son, Lieutenant Gil Badihi, was killed in the line of duty three years ago. Gil was a sympathetic and compassionate person, says his father. “He cared for his soldiers, many of whom came from disadvantaged families, as if they were his children.”

Searching for a fitting memorial to their son, the Badihi family remembered a gilgul they had seen in France several years earlier and determined to bring gilgulonim to Israel so that people in this country with severe motor disabilities could get out and experience nature. At gatherings all over the country, people were asked to donate money for the gilgulonim, which cost over $3,500 dollars each to import. Grateful for their contributions, Gil’s talented mother, Yael, would perform for the groups.

Adding funds of their own, the Badihi’s have so far been able to purchase six gilgulonim, which are used at schools and for nature trips all over the country. On what would have been Gil’,s 25th birthday, June 17th, the Badihi family initiated the first of what will become annual memorial nature trips for children with disabilities. Hopefully, they will soon be able to add to the gilgulonim fleet, for Yael plans to sing her way through North America, while asking for donations.

Two people are required to maneuver the gilgulon, an aluminum structure with a high, thin wheel, handles fore and aft, fantastic shock absorbers, and the ability to traverse almost any terrain. Yoel believes that it is of utmost importance to integrate able-bodied persons with people who have disabilities, and since able-bodied people are needed to carry gilgulonim, the result is a prime example of social integration.

“We are delighted with the gilgulonim,” says Avner. “They bring people with disabilities and able-bodied people together for joint activities, barriers are broken, everyone has a good time, and there is a feeling of equality in which the labels “able-bodied” and “disabled” are discarded.”

The volunteers who carry the giluglonim have been dubbed “angels.” The volunteers are able to participate in an adventurous hike and enjoy nature for free, while helping others and everybody wins.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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