Walking into my Gan (preschool in Hebrew) on the first day of volunteering went quite differently than I thought it would. For starters, before I even had the chance to say hello, five kids jumped on me, screaming and laughing. I happily hugged them all, although I was taken aback by how outgoing and friendly they were to a complete stranger. The following few hours were high-energy, to say the least.
Twice a week, I, along with one of the Israeli Mechina (pre-army program) participants, volunteer at a Gan that is run by Messilah, an organization that runs Ganim (preschools) all over South Tel Aviv for children of refugees and asylum seekers. The Gan where I volunteer has around twenty children and one Ganenet (preschool teacher), so it’s fair to say it can be pretty chaotic sometimes. Most of the kids are between the ages of three and four, however there are also a few babies (which if you know me, you’ll know I don’t mind at all). It’s important to mention is that my Gan is run out of an apartment, so the kids spend the majority of the day and sometimes part of the evening in a very small space. When you add all of these factors together (a bunch of toddlers running around in a small apartment all day), it seems daunting. Now I would never think that about this special place; I’m so glad I was wrong about that feeling.
Receiving such a warm welcome by the kids made me really feel the homey environment I entered. The apartment is set up like a playroom: some kids are huddled around a book, others are drawing, and the rest are running around. It feels immediately comfortable. No sooner than I sit down, kids start running up to me, sitting on my lap, and hugging me. These kids are some of the sweetest and most loving people I’ve met, but it’s important to note that a big reason for their affection is neglect. Most of their parents work very long hours every day and don’t get to be with their kids nearly as much as they want to be. All that these kids want is to receive the love that they give. Giving a hug or even a high-five can go a very long way.
With all of that in mind, I want to share some of my favorite moments from my volunteering.
Most of my kids are still learning how to talk, so sometimes their means of communication are through hand gestures. A few weeks ago, two kids started fighting over a toy. One of the kids ended up taking it and walking away, leaving the other one very sad. After asking the kid to apologize to his friend, instead of saying sorry, he sat down and began sympathetically patting his friend on the head. Wanting to join in on the fun, the other kid started doing it back to his friend. The two of them sat there for over five minutes stroking each others’ hair, smiling. It was one of the first times I had seen a conflict between two kids end so calmly. Every day that I go to the Gan most of the kids are just waking up from a nap. They slowly come in looking very wide-eyed and disoriented from sleep. One day in particular, everyone seemed to have slept very deeply. One by one, they slowly stumbled in and all either lay down on the floor or back against the wall. Some of them couldn’t help but doze off to sleep again. I sat there laughing with the Ganenot. We had never seen so many kids fighting to stay awake!
I think that when I first started volunteering I focused much more on the larger impact of
what I was doing rather than soak up moments when I’m actually with the kids. I eventually realized that it really is the small moments of joy, laughter, and sometimes sleep that go such a long way in these kids’ day to day lives. I feel so lucky I can be friends with such sweet kids and show them even just a little bit of love each day.
18-year-old Rina Dale from Newton, MA is spending a year on BINA Gap Year at the Secular Yeshiva in south Tel Aviv. As part of the program the GAP – together with their Israeli peers in the Mechina (pre-army) program – work in volunteer placements in the surrounding neighborhoods. This is Rina’s first blog post and she describes her experiences volunteering in a preschool program for children of refugees and Asylum seekers.