March 27, 2005, Updated September 14, 2012

Kav Hazinuk’s plan is to nurture these youth through high school, the army and university in an intense and unique 10-year program that will help them discover and channel their hidden talents.When he returned to his native Israel five years ago from a stint in Silicon Valley, high tech entrepreneur Dari Shalon knew he didn’t just want to do business in his home country, he wanted to make a difference.

“After I came back to Israel, I identified my two goals. One was to do something about the lack of equality of opportunity in Israeli society, the other was the need for more visionary leadership in all aspects of society,” he told ISRAEL21c.

He examined the situation as he would in business: after he identified his goals, he looked around at the landscape to see if they were being addressed by any organization.

“I looked around for existing organizations. There were some basic things that I felt were needed. It shouldn’t be a program for ‘troubled youth’ but a program that could create leaders who would inspire others. It needed to be a long-term program – working on values and goals takes time. It needed to begin while they were young, and it needed to use the most professional tools available, the kind that are used in the business world. I didn’t see any programs that had these three elements.”

So in true high tech start-up fashion, he decided to create his own.

Kav Hazinuk (‘The Starting Line’) is the a four-year old organization founded by Shalon and his partner Ophir Nahum, which handpicks high-potential youth from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and gives them the tools to improve their own future, together with improving the country around them. Each year, the organization selects several dozen youths with major leadership potential from thousands of candidates.

The elements of the program include personal meetings with role models and leaders from all aspects of Israeli society in order to inspire them, outdoor training, such as obstacle courses, rappelling, and survival exercises to builds stamina self-confidence, decision making, stress management, teamwork skills, and leadership qualities. One-on-one coaching is also provided, which helps students overcome emotional obstacles in their lives and to define and achieve their personal goals with an experienced mentor from the student’s field of interest.

Finally, the element of the program called ‘Leadership Through Action’ enables each student to initiate and run an outreach project of their own conception. The student identifies a real need in his or her community, envisions a better solution, designs the program, recruits the resources, and implements the plan over the course of two years.

Katty Mitnikov, 17, from Tel Aviv, came upon her project by chance. She and her partner Roni Itzhaki had been told about The Youth Clinic, a special medical clinic in Tel Aviv that catered to adolescents with medical issues who were afraid to tell their parents.

When they went to the clinic to ask how to support it, they discovered it was shutting down because the Tel Aviv municipality had cut its budget.

“That’s when we really started getting involved,” she told ISRAEL21c. “We thought it was really important that it stay open. The teens who go there are people who don’t have any other place to go.”

They began a letter-writing campaign to all of the high schools in the city, lobbied City Council members, staged protests and drew the attention of the press to the cause. A petition that they circulated to teenagers throughout the city was sent to the mayor of Tel Aviv and to public leaders.

“At one point the officials told us it wasn’t closing – but it turned out that they were just trying to get rid of us,” Mitnikov recalls. “But we wouldn’t give up, we kept on going, talking to the press and sending letters. In the end, we got a fax from the mayor saying that it was official: the clinic would stay open. Some of the municipal workers told us that they had wanted to keep it open, but there had been nobody to support that decision and speak for the clinic. We were the ones who spoke for it.”

Mitnikov’s Youth Clinic campaign was something she couldn’t have imagined doing before the program, which not only gave her practical tools such as coaching in letter writing and meeting behavorial standards, but more importantly, built her overall level of confidence. Her success has boosted that confidence even higher.

“I would never think I could do such a change on my own. It is amazing that we kept an item in the Tel Aviv municipal budget that cost 250,000 shekels ($60,000)! Before Kav Hazinuk, I would never have believed that I could do something like that.”

Kav Hazinuk’s plan is to nurture these youth through high school, the army and university in an intense and unique 10-year program that will help them discover and channel their hidden talents.

By offering them challenge and opportunities, it is hoped that the youth who emerge from the program will be equipped to become tomorrow’s social, political and business leaders – role models for their peers and the younger generations.

“I know I will come out of this program different than I would have otherwise,” said Mitnikov. “I already see the changes in myself – I am more opinionated and I stick to my values. I wouldn’t be the same person without it.”

Four years into the program, Shalon is already excited by the results.

“Even though they are identified as ‘high potential’ before the program, many of these kids’ expectations of themselves are very low.,” he said. “They attempt to accomplish some things on a small scale, but primarily, they are trying to survive. In the program — and we are seeing it happen in the first and second year, they begin to expect more of themselves. They are transformed from kids who barely survive in the system to kids who are improving the system.”

He cited as an example another project, involving student participants Rami Melrud, Daniel Babayev and Kobi Lanziano. The trio created a strategic plan to involve youth in the campaign against traffic accidents in Israel. They obtained the support of the Israeli Police to implement the program, which has recruited dozens of Israeli youths to document violations and write personalized letters to traffic offenders.

“These kids decided that traffic accidents bother them and decided to create a program for the enforcement of traffic law. We could have tried to use connections to get them in the door, but we let them knock on the organizations themselves. And they did – they were 15 years old, but they got past the secretaries, gave Power Point presentations, created a work plan and won the support on their own,” said Shalon.

“It wasn’t easy,” said Milrud, 17, from Lod. “It was a long process – coming up with our plan and finding people to help us. First we found an organization dedicated to fighting traffic accidents who said they would support us. They brought us to the Education Ministry, who connected us with the police.”

“We knew we had to involve youth directly – today’s youth are tomorrow’s drivers. By handing out the letters, we wanted to send a message that it wasn’t just an issue of breaking the law and paying a fine. We want the drivers to understand that they are endangering real people, that they potentially could have taken someone’s life.”

Like Mitnikov, he says the program has greatly improved his self-confidence.

“I’m not talking about self-esteem,” he stresses, “but a belief in myself that I am capable of doing things that I didn’t necessarily believe I could do – hat I can see something that I believe in that needs to change and I can get in there and make a plan and do it.”

Another pair of participants, Fia Hillel and Meisa Abu lar, enrolled a group of Jewish and Arab teenagers from Jaffa to jointly direct and produce three films dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of these young filmmakers. Hillel and Abu Iar recruited the support of the Tel-Aviv Cinemateque and the Tel-Aviv Municipality for this project. In December, the films were premiered at the Tel-Aviv Cinemateque.

“Two other girls were disturbed by the talented immigrant musicians who have been put in the position of playing on the sidewalks as street musicians. They decided to organize a concert for them, sold tickets, and gave them the privilege of performing in front of a crowd that included high-level Israeli musicians and producers. Everyone was incredibly impressed that these 15 year old girls had initiated something to address a problem that is in front of the eyes of city residents every day,” said Shalon.

The current group is now completing high school, with the Kav Hazinuk organization supporting them and guiding them through the matriculation exams. The coaching and support will continue throughout their army service, and Shalon plans to offer them partial scholarships through their higher education, working in cooperation with universities and foundations.

After seeing such tremendous results in the greater Tel Aviv region, Shalon is ready to go national. Like the teenage participants in his program, his level of confidence in his ability to make a change has grown as well.

Reverting back to high tech terminology, he says “now that we have the beta version of our program running well, now we are ready for a national roll-out.”

He is aiming high – after all, as he tells the youth who participate in the program, the sky is the limit.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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