Snoezelen in the Haifa Center (Israël) for Children with Learning Disabilities (English)

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Reinforcing the normal

By Wendy Blumfield

A unique center for children with learning disabilities aims to help them in many innovative ways

WHAT can parents do if they are concerned about their child's educational problems? In Haifa, they can look to Chi.L.D - the Haifa Center for Children with Learning Disabilities - where a team of dedicated professionals and volunteers provide vital educational and therapeutic services for children with learning disabilities.

One of the most dramatic and unusual features of their recovery program is the Snoezelen Room, which was funded from Holland

Founded 15 years ago by pediatrician and family doctor, Dr Yeremiahu Lubasch in a small apartment with only six children, the center now caters for 120 children who are released from school during the day for specialized activity or who use the many facilities during after-school hours.

FIVE years ago, the Haifa municipality gave the Center a large old house which had been owned in the '20s by a local doctor. The building has been tastefully adapted and even the beautifully preserved coach-house has been converted into an after-school club and activity center for immigrant children.

Situated in the Hadar neighbourhood, the Center caters for the local haredi community and the many immigrant families from that area, while other children in need of their services are provided transport from their schools and homes further away.

Taken on a tour of the house by human resources director Layah Zryl and volunteer fund-raiser Stuart Palmer, I was impressed by the child-friendly design that has emerged from this charming old gem of architecture. Far from being spoiled by modernization, the huge old arched windows let in natural light and warmth and the high ceilings provide an atmosphere of space and serenity.

The painstaking renovations have resulted in a house of many colors and disciplines.

There's a child-sized working kitchen, where children can knead dough and create tasty dishes, and art and music rooms where therapists have their own space. Sound-proofing permits children to make as much noise as they wish, providing freedom of space and noise that is in such short supply in the lower-income homes in the local community.

Income level is not the criterion for acceptance to the Center, for learning disabilities can be found in all sections of the population. Nevertheless, a child who comes from a crowded home where parents do not always have the time or ability to provide stimulation will derive special benefit from learning to use a computer or expressing himself through music, dancing and painting.

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Children here range in age from 4 to 16, and usually attend for two years, in addition to their regular school framework.

NEARLY one out of 10 children suffer from some form of learning disability, often accompanied by behavioral disturbance. But these children are often gifted in many ways and it is the task of the multi-disciplinary therapists to reinforce those talents in order to handle the problems.

It is the holistic approach of creating an individual program to suit the medical, educational and psychological needs of each child that makes the Center unique.

Apart from providing education and therapy for children with learning disabilities, there is an early childhood rehabilitative day care center integrating normal children, a family counseling service, the after-school program for youngsters from the FSU and community outreach.

Many of these issues overlap. While pet therapy and the Snoezelen Room are appropriate for stimulating and calming children with attention deficit disorders, as well as for the infants in the day care center, they are also invaluable for post-traumatic stress, a syndrome that unfortunately is on the rise among children who have witnessed or lost loved ones in terrorist attacks.

Reinforcing the normal is the keystone of the Center's work.

In the early childhood day care center, for example, which is housed in a nearby building currently being leased and in urgent need of renovations, children from newborns to 3-year-olds with physical limitations but normal intelligence are integrated with normal children from the neighbourhood.

The theory is that the physically handicapped child will benefit from the intellectual stimulation of the normal child, while the child without handicaps gains from specialized individual day care with a high ratio of caregivers and expert therapists who provide enriched activities.

The day care center today caters for nine handicapped and 10 normal children, and there is a waiting list to join.

"INTEGRATION is very successful," says Dr Lubasch, who joined us after the tour of the two houses.

"It prevents developmental problems being swept under the carpet and it removes the stigma. Parents of normal as well as handicapped children benefit from the family counseling offered and the guidance on how to stimulate infants to the best of their potential."

Dr Lubasch's medical supervision of the Center enables children to attend day-care who might otherwise be kept at home. A bright 3-year-old with severe heart problems, for example, is flourishing here in a safe, warm environment. For the first time, she is allowed to play with other children and develop her social skills. No other day-care center would take responsibility for her and her parents too were fearful of exposing her to the conventional nursery schools.

"As a pediatrician serving the Haifa area, I was in a unique position to evaluate services the community needed," said Dr. Lubasch, who has clinics in the Hadar area and on the Carmel.

Families can avail themselves of the counseling center, which addresses such issues as communication between couples, child-rearing, adolescence, sexual dysfunction and family violence.

THE afternoon club in the old coach-house was specifically designed for FSU immigrant children, many of them from low socio-economic families where their parents must work long hours, leaving the children uncared for in the afternoon hours. They are provided with lunch, help with homework, Hebrew language proficiency and enrichment activities such as computer skills, music, arts and crafts, games and access to the pet corner with its fascinating collection rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens and ducks. In addition, there are special Jewish festival programs and holiday trips.

Yet another program was created to help crisis victims after terror attacks and to prevent secondary trauma and burnout of workers in the emergency services. It was funded by the Boston Jewish connection with the Haifa foundation, in cooperation with school principals and the municipality.

One of the most dramatic and unusual features of this recovery program is the Snoezelen Room, which was funded from Holland.

This room, used for many of the other programs in the Center as well, is a white, quiet space furnished only with padded mattresses and surfaces. A child who enters this room can control panels which control lighting, sound, vibration and touch. This can provide either stillness and relaxation or increased mobility and sensory and visual stimulation, as the child wishes.

The Haifa Center is the first to use Snoezelen Room Therapy for learning disabled children and its uses have been documented for those with autism, Downs Syndrome and CP and other disorders affecting communication.

A new program now being created here is for new mothers suffering from adjustment problems and postpartum depression. The Snoezelen Room is being used for enhancing bonding, particularly difficult in cases where the infant is physically limited.

OF course, the staff of the Center are well aware of the financial burdens faced by parents of handicapped children.

Families are charged according to their income, with donations sought throughout the world and locally in order to maintain the services and the buildings. In addition, the Center is establishing a free loan program of equipment appropriate to the age and limitations of the child. By enabling parents to borrow walkers and wheelchairs, and other mobility aids as well as physiotherapy equipment such as trampolines, balls and play-tunnels, parents can continue to help their children at home.

For its work, the Center, has received special commendations, such as the William Trump Hesed Award, given in 2001 for their outstanding contribution to learning disabled children.

SO where does all the money come from? Layah Zryl listed many of the foundations which have contributed to costs. Until now, 60% of the costs have come from the Education and Welfare Ministries, with grants from the health funds. The kitchen was paid for by National Insurance.

However, with the drastic drop in public funding in the present economic situation, there are severe problems with maintaining the building and the equipment. "Already some of the computers in the afternoon club are out of use and we can't afford to repair them," she says.

"In order to expand and develop, we want to buy the building that we lease for the day care center. It's in need of massive renovation. At present, food is brought in for the afternoon club and the day care centre, but a large kitchen stands unused in the building because the cost of equipping it to safety standards is colossal."

While the teachers and therapists are paid for their professional skills, the Center relies on a team of volunteers for help on the site and for fund-raising and public relations.

Dr Lubasch himself works totally voluntarily.

As he spoke, with immense passion about the work of the Center, a little boy, with a mop of blond curls and a bright, laughing face crawled over to Layah and tugged at her skirt to be picked up and hugged..

"The smile of a child is my biggest payment," Dr Lubasch remarked.


The Haifa Center for Children with Learning Disabilities (ChiLD), 6 Arlosoroff St, POB 5503, Haifa 31054.

For more information about The Haifa Center for Children: Click Here!

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