Editor's Note: In honor of Yom Ha'atzmaut, we are sharing this blog about Lotem, an innovative program in Israel that organizes outings for people with special needs on nature reserves through the country.
If I had any doubt about the importance of my work as a soldier guide with LOTEM- Making Nature Accessible, yesterday it totally vanished.
It all began when I got on the bus as I do every day when I am guiding, though what awaited me was a surprise: when my face was revealed to the students they began to call out, "You were with us last year" and "I know you" and "Do you remember that we were in the Judean Desert?" The students indeed were not mistaken! One year ago I guided the same group from Shafririm A. School for teenagers with intellectual challenges in the Judean Desert on a two day hike.
From the moment of our renewed encounter and onwards the students did not stop bringing up memories and experiences from last year's outing and I simply could not believe how meaningful the outing was for them.
I do not remember myself as a student in a regular education high school being able to recall every detail from my class field trips. For many students that we guide (as well as the adults and children in kindergarten), every outing to nature, overnight away from home and encounter with new people who see them as equals can certainly not be taken for granted. Going out to nature is very necessary for the mental and emotional development of people with special needs. This outing proved this to me more than anything else.
The students came from Givat Haim [north of Netanya] to Jerusalem and absorbed in one full day- from sunrise to sunset- as much of Jerusalem as possible. We entered the gates of the city into Givat Ram. We met Knesset Member Orly Levi. We toured the Knesset. We saw the Menorah of Benno Elkan. We traveled to Mount Herzl and toured the cemetery and museum. When dusk arrived we parted from the group. The entire experience of the capital city and the people who influence the country was very significant for the high school students and in showing them that they can dream and achieve.
This is one of the reasons that the students' reminiscing of last year's outing so amazed me. Even on a day like this that was so busy and packed, last year's outing was still with them and is giving them courage and strength for the rest of their lives. What most moved me was a sentence that one of the students who has intellectual challenges said. He approached me as soon as we got off the bus as we marched towards the Wohl Rose Park to have breakfast. He said, "Adi do you remember that you asked me on last year's hike to remind you to return the key to the teacher's room and I reminded you so that you would not forget?" The memory of the field trip that most stood out for this 17 year old boy was this small phrase that I said to him, that I treated him with such importance. The responsibility that I gave him, the trust I put in him that he would remind me, the feeling of maturity- this is what was most meaningful for him on his field trip. An entire year went by and he still carries this memory inside him and for him these are points of courage that give him the strength to go on.
Suddenly I received such a strong burst of momentum and faith in the path that I have chosen and a complete understanding of LOTEM's contribution to Israeli society and to the quality of life of such a large percentage of its population, as well as my privilege to be part of LOTEM.
Adi Cohen is in her second year as a national service volunteer with LOTEM. The students mentioned in this blog study in the Shafririm A. School for teenagers with intellectual challenges.