A passionate Israeli educator has set up a program for delinquent teenage boys in a wildlife park on a kibbutz.
Wing of Love is a wildlife park with a social mission. Located in Kibbutz Kfar Menahem in south central Israel, it is a place where 14 to18-year-old boys with police records work with mostly protected species of fowl, such as the spectacular Asian pheasant. It is also home to ibexes, oryxes and other indigenous animals. And the singular “wing” in its name is not an error.
“The boys are under our wing – one wing – because they are also supposed to develop their own wing,” Michele Klein, spokeswoman of the park, tells ISRAEL21c. “So they are participating in the process that will allow them to fly the rest of the way on two wings. And this place is meant to be a garden of love for people and animals, where the boys bond with the animals and each other based on respect and love.”
While it seems only natural to people to help children and youth who grapple with medical issues, the reaction to those with welfare issues is rarely as straightforward, says Klein.
The staff at Wing of Love does everything in its power to give its charges, all of whom are there by court order, a vision of a future that includes hope. “In the absence of that vision,” stresses Klein, who is also a clinical psychologist, trustee and close to full-time volunteer for Wing of Love, they’ll be in and out of prison for the rest of their lives.”
Those who last a year, usually want to stay on, says Klein, stressing that the main goals of Wing of Love are to teach the boys how to successfully integrate into the workplace, how to work efficiently and well and to take pride in what they do.
Wing of Love director Boaz Miller used to run the boarding facility of the Israel Arts and Science Academy (IASA) in Jerusalem. This unique three-year residential high school (grades 10-12) for students gifted in the arts, science and mathematics provides Israeli students of extremely diverse ethnic background, socioeconomic class and religious commitment with a general education consistent with their exceptional abilities.
After five years of nurturing the crème de la crème of Israel’s high school students, Boaz felt that he had contributed his utmost to the effort, that things were running smoothly, and that it was time to turn his talents to the other end of the spectrum.
As the mother of four children who attended IASA and an active member of the PTA, Klein, a London-educated clinical psychologist, was deeply impressed by Boaz as an educator and a human being. She refers to him as “an extremely creative thinker and the mastermind of Wing of Love.”
Miller’s initial idea was to convert the kibbutz park into a place where adolescents with special needs could learn how to function as fully-fledged members of the work force. Upon taking over the run-down wildlife park from the kibbutz in 2003, he implemented his idea with a special needs high school in nearby Ness Ziona.
But he soon realized that the group most in need of help is juvenile delinquents and young offenders. And since about 90 percent of these are male and the dearth of suitable frameworks for them means that most drop out and become repeat offenders, doomed to a life of delinquency, Miller felt that he had found his new focus.
Fraught with challenges
The Ministry of Welfare was going through a process of privatization of services at that time, to offer more diverse options to its target population. The neglected kibbutz park leant itself perfectly to a specialization in a framework offering outdoor work with animals.
Their proposal accepted, in 2005 Miller and his staff started work with six boys who they housed in a residential area in a nearby town. Today there are 16 boys at Wing of Love. Every step has been fraught with challenges from the seemingly simple issue of where to rent a house – many communities were unwilling to have the boys as neighbors – to the slow work of building trust with the adolescent males from underprivileged, often unloving backgrounds.
The organization’s annual budget is about 1.4 million shekels, which only goes part of the way to meeting its needs.
“While we always wish for a higher success rate, we do have our own success stories,” Klein recounts with enthusiasm and pride. “The boys who come to us have police records and usually aren’t eligible or interested in serving in the army, but one is now in the [elite] paratroopers unit and another is a cook in Golani [an infantry brigade]. If they choose to stay in the park for at least two years we can turn them around.”
Perhaps the story closest to her heart is about a boy who had been so scarred by abuse and neglect that Klein feared he would never be able to experience an emotional life colored by anything but anger.
Saving a life
Seemingly miraculously, it was the plight of an elderly donkey that thawed his heart. His compassion for the animal and the sensitivity of the staff, who were aware of how vital it was to respect the boy’s longing for the old pregnant donkey to survive and deliver its young, extended to Israel’s sole animal hospital.
Though generally concerned with different priorities, the hospital accepted the case. The treatment was a success and the mother survived and her baby was born.
While all the boys are there by court order, the Wing of Love framework is “open” as opposed to “locked” and after a three-month trial period the boys can choose to stay or to try a different court-approved option. As a boarding framework, Wing of Love is a 24-hour-a-day project, with home visits once in two weeks strongly encouraged.
A teacher from the Education Ministry helps the boys with literacy, numeracy and general knowledge until at least a 10th -grade level and tries to help each one to advance according to his level.
There is also an animal-assisted therapist and a full-time social worker who meets with each of the boys for an hour a week. Counselors work in shifts at the house in the evenings and on weekends and after boys leave some retain their connection as mentors for the long-term.
Putting the chaos behind them
And of course, the boys spend a lot of time working in the park, either with the animals or doing maintenance work, which ranges from building and maintaining equipment to special projects, such as learning about the needs and habits of quails and preparing new living quarters for them.
In an effort to make the venture self-sustaining, the trustees are trying out various business, community outreach and fundraising ideas. At specific times during the year the park is open to the public. Then the boys work as guides, snack sellers, and animal handlers and may also help out with workshops. There is an ‘Adopt an Animal’ program for local and foreign donors.
Other examples are a group of 18 Air Force cadets who have adopted Wing of Love as their volunteer project. Two cadets spend one morning a week working with the boys in the park. Another group of volunteers from the high-tech world has been working in the park for the past few years, which gives the boys the opportunity to meet and learn from the kind of people they have never met before.
One of the boys wrote the following for the newsletter: “I am sixteen years old and I have been at Wing of Love for four months. I used to be a boy who hung about in the street and got into trouble with the law.
“When I got to Wing of Love, my life changed drastically. I am now less in the street, less in fights, less in trouble and I feel that I have changed. I hope that in the future I will be able to put all the chaos of my former life behind me and join the army.”