On the streets at 14, raped at 17 and living with a boyfriend at 19, Mariuma Klein does not fit the profile of someone likely to succeed in life. Yet she has succeeded big time, raising three healthy daughters and winning awards and international recognition for nurturing tens of thousands of Israeli runaways over the past 29 years in her unique Shanti House.
Organizations in Europe, North America and Australia invite the New York-born Klein to show them how to copy the Shanti House model, which grew up along with her.
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“I do have a degree in psychodrama,” she tells ISRAEL21c in her colorful office at the main Shanti House in Tel Aviv’s Neveh Tzedek neighborhood. “But that came later. My ‘degree’ is 30,000 children.”
At the beginning, at not quite 20 years old, her goal was to provide a proper Shabbat evening meal for the many runaways who find themselves in Tel Aviv.
She and her partner Dino didn’t have much money, so they collected leftovers from vendors in the Carmel Market on Friday afternoons, and their ragtag group of guests helped them turn the groceries into a meal. Many would stay for the night.
“From Friday to Friday, there were so many children stuck with no place to eat or sleep,” she recalls 30 years later. “One girl said she got raped and I was the first one she told, and I told her I also got raped. In this moment, I understood this is my destiny.”
In 1984, one of their guests remarked that she felt “shanti” there, using a Sanskrit word for tranquility. Another runaway immediately picked up a can of spray paint and wrote “Welcome to Shanti House” on the wall.
It wasn’t exactly a business plan. But it worked.
Their last hope
In 1992, Klein established the Shanti House Association, a non-profit that today gets 20 percent of its annual $2.2 million budget from the Israeli government. The rest must be solicited from individual donors; a 501(c) organization was established in the United States for accepting tax-deductible contributions. Her ultimate vision is to expand into a worldwide umbrella association.
For now, Shanti House is the only institution in Israel that takes in youth ages 14-21 (usually the cap is 18) every day of the year around the clock — kids on the brink of becoming victims of physical violence, sexual abuse, crime, prostitution and drug addiction. It also hosts prevention programs annually for thousands of soldiers and at-risk youth.
“Shanti House is unique in the world,” Klein says. “First, it’s a home. When you go inside, the walls hug you. Second, you have to choose to be here. If you don’t choose to be here — whether you’re referred by a court or social worker or come from the street — you’ll go somewhere else. I believe children who have been victimized have to stand up and say, ‘I choose differently.’”
About a quarter of those who find their way to Shanti House don’t intend to run away forever. Klein’s goal is to get these kids back home, with appropriate counseling in place, in no more than a week.
For everyone else, Shanti House is their last hope.
“They come from all levels of society: very rich to very poor, religious, not religious, Russians, Ethiopians, Bedouins, Druze. They come from backgrounds of sex abuse, violence or neglect. They are lone soldiers, orphans or children whose parents can’t afford to support them or kicked them out of the house,” she relates. “They feel rejected day by day; it’s a kind of death.”
She knows what this feels like. “I was a kid who went through all the things that the kids we accept in Shanti House go through,” she says.
In 2001, Shanti House moved out of Klein’s home to its present site. Eight years later, she opened Desert Shanti House Youth Village in the Negev.
“In Israel there are currently 330,000 children and youth at risk, 28,000 of them in the country’s south,” she explains. “From Beersheva to Eilat there aren’t many places for welfare.”
Through Ramat Hanegev Regional Council Mayor Shmuel Rifman, she obtained 133 acres in a secluded but accessible location in 2002. The Rashi Foundation and other donors helped her build a spectacular “green” living quarters whose grounds include a large Bedouin-style tent where residents and guests can share music, art and poetry.
“They opened their hearts to me, they gave me land. It was a realization of my dream, but I couldn’t do it without others,” Klein says. “It’s something that has never been done before, not in Israel and not in the world. It’s completely out of the box.”
She splits her time equally among the two sites, where sheltering the runaways is just the beginning. Klein’s therapeutic model, dubbed “Shantherapy,” includes classes, trips, vocational training, enrichment and volunteering activities, 12 Steps, Reiki, agriculture and animal therapy, drumming, psychodrama and one-on-one counseling among other offerings.
Under the guidance of 30 employees – 18 in Tel Aviv and 12 in the Negev — residents share household chores and are expected to go to school or work. Clothing, food, supplies and pocket money are all provided.
Klein is writing a book to outline her methods, which were proven effective by a Hebrew University study that found 90% of the teens leaving Shanti House do not return to the streets.
“I knew I had to take my life project and teach others how to take it over when I’m no longer here,” she says. “Sometimes when you grow such a project you forget to let it go, and let others also make it theirs, and the project dies with you.”
The highlight of the week at Shanti House remains the traditional Shabbat dinners that started it all. Many of the kids who spent a significant amount of time at Shanti House return there on holidays such as Passover, year after year. Even if they’re living independently, Shanti House remains their home.