A single mother in Ashkelon brought her child to the local branch of Krembo Wings, a unique Israeli youth movement run by kids for kids with special needs. But unlike the other parents, she didn’t leave after dropping off her daughter.

“I asked her, ‘Why are you still here? Go have coffee with your friends,’” relates Merav Boaz, senior vice president of Krembo Wings.

“My daughter is 11 years old and I’ve never been apart from her,” the woman told Boaz. “I don’t remember what I used to do. All my friends are gone; they don’t understand what I’m going through. I am all alone.”

Boaz introduced her to a mother in a similar situation in the nearby city of Ashdod. The two became friends, as did their daughters. Now the moms enjoy a few hours together once a week while the girls are at their respective Krembo Wings meetings.

New friends at a Krembo Wings club in Givatayim. Photo: courtesy

Founded in 2002, Krembo Wings is the only inclusive youth movement in Israel for children and teens with and without disabilities.

In a country where youth and scouting movements are a vital part of society, Krembo Wings provides a solution for those who otherwise can’t take part. And their parents, in addition to gaining a safe social structure for their kids, get a few hours’ break every week to nurture other relationships, like the mother in Ashkelon.

Today, Krembo Wings has 63 branches across Israel with about 6,000 members aged 7 to 21 from all cultural, religious and socio-economic backgrounds. Two-thirds of that number is counselors – each child gets two counselors — who wear the same uniform and pay the same membership fee as the kids they lead.

Every child in Krembo Wings has two counselors. Photo: courtesy

‘Krembo Wings has two populations: kids with special needs and counselors,” Boaz tells ISRAEL21c. “These two populations create the magic.”

Merav Boaz, senior vice president of Krembo Wings. Photo: courtesy

Counselors can be as young as 12, and about 25 percent of them also have a disability. They receive training, supervision and guidance like in any youth movement but take an extraordinary amount of responsibility. Each branch is led by a 16- to 18-year-old experienced counselor.

Last year, leaders of Krembo Wings were invited to the United Nations to talk about this innovative Israeli initiative. The group will soon receive official consultant status on the UN’s Economic and Social Council, joining a dozen other Israeli NGOs that advise member countries.

“Krembo Wings is totally unique in the world,” says Boaz. “We have hosted delegations from social and educational organizations from lots of countries – such as Korea, China, the US, Poland, Russia and Germany – who want to learn about what we do.”

Founded by a teenager

Appropriately enough, Krembo Wings was started by a 16-year-old teenager, Adi Altschuler.

When she was 12, she started volunteering with Kfir Kobi, a preschooler with cerebral palsy, through the ILAN organization. It broke her heart to see that Kfir had so few opportunities for peer interactions.

So at age 16, when she joined LEAD, a nonprofit that helps Israeli teenagers plan, implement and manage community projects, she launched the forerunner of Krembo Wings in cooperation with Kfir’s mother, Claudia. (Krembo is the name of one of Israel’s most popular snack foods.)

In 2009, Altschuler and Krembo Wings received the Presidential Award for Volunteerism. In 2014, she was named one of six future world leaders by TIME magazine.

Krembo Wings’ founder Adi Altschuler with then Israeli President Shimon Peres. Photo via Facebook

Although Altschuler left Krembo Wings five years ago “to spread her wings to other social initiatives,” as Boaz puts it, the organization has continued soaring. The $6.2 million annual budget is covered by a patchwork of donations, membership fees, government ministries and the municipalities that host Krembo Wings branches.

“None of the founders thought it would be so big and so deep and fruitful. They couldn’t even imagine it would have such a strong effect on the counselors too,” says Boaz.

Yotam and Yaniv sharing a happy moment at Krembo Wings in Herzliya. Photo: courtesy

Tom, a counselor at the Kiryat Shmona branch, said that the things he learns at school will not all necessarily be relevant to his life.

“At Krembo Wings’ seminars and training days I get tools that help me deal with my life right now, as a teenager. Every day I learn so much from Krembo Wings’ training, branch activities and from my amazing special partner. What I learn here is the ‘real thing’ that will stay with me for the rest of my life,” he said.

Life-changing

Every August, Krembo Wings runs a camp for members and their families. “It’s a chance for a family vacation that many of these families cannot have,” says Boaz.

Parents and siblings of special children form bonds with one another at the camp, providing them with year-round support no matter where they live.

The main goal of Krembo Wings, however, is to enable every child living with any type of motor, cognitive or sensory disability to take part in enjoyable social interactions between one another and their able-bodied peers, as well as to become part of community life in Israel.

“Parents always say their special-needs kids don’t fit in the regular youth movements like Tzofim or Bnei Akiva or Noar Oved, and the clubhouses are not always accessible even if they want to welcome these kids,” says Boaz.

Special-needs kids have a chance to experience youth movement culture in Krembo Wings. Photo: courtesy

“It’s so hard for the parents and for the child who has nothing to do after school and is bored and isolated. Sometimes at Krembo Wings we see teenagers who never had a birthday party with anyone but their family. Something was lacking in this child’s life and now he has it. Everything here is designed to meet his needs, even if he doesn’t speak. This is life-changing.”

Some of the Krembo Wings children have never had a birthday party with friends before. Photo: courtesy

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