The latest blooming in Israel’s Negev Desert is particularly relevant in February, which is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. At Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran—a rehabilitation village in southern Israel that serves people with severe disabilities—residents benefit from green therapy, which uses gardening and nature to help give the special needs community a higher quality of life.

Green therapy participants are brought to a greenhouse on the Aleh Negev campus, where they are greeted with flowers, shrubs, and herbs that they work to plant and care for. It is also a therapeutic haven where all of the senses are stimulated.

“Residents can smell the flowers, taste the plants, and feel the earth and leaves between their fingers,” says Osher Cohen, coordinator of culture and recreation at Aleh Negev.

The greenhouse only uses non-toxic plants and those without seeds or pits, in order to keep the environment safe for all the participants. Since the village started using this form of therapy, staffers have noted a dramatic change in the behavior of those who participate.

“These are people who are usually unsettled, and we notice that they are calmer, more relaxed, and more engaged,” Cohen says, noting that for some of them, this type of therapy has brought their participation level from non-existent to very active.

“If we don’t give them a way to engage, patients’ behavior and overall wellbeing drastically regress,” he says, adding that green therapy addresses this need.

Stav Herling-Gosher, an Aleh Negev spokesperson, says the participants are “very dependent on their surroundings and get assistance through the help of others,” yet through green therapy, they are “able to see that other living things are dependent on them.” By showing concern for their creations, such as by checking on whether the plants have been sufficiently watered or had enough sunlight, Aleh Negev residents can see and feel the results of their labor when their plants grow and thrive—much like themselves.

Aleh Negev works in partnership with Israel-based Derech HaYadiim, an organization that provides green therapy.

“Many of the patients coming in are low-functioning, and we work with them at the most basic level. They may not know what they are doing, but we provide this humane warmth and inclusion that greatly helps,” says Ishay Zamiri, one of the group leaders for Derech HaYadiim’s green therapy.

“We receive them as they are and make no special requests,” he says, as he gently strokes a participant’s hand with a soft leaf from one of the nearby plants.

Sela Marom, owner and head guide of Derech HaYadiim, adds, “This type of treatment gives a lot of unconditional love—it doesn’t matter who you are, the plants are still going to grow.”

The green therapy—and the greenhouse in which it takes place—is made possible by donations from Jewish National Fund (JNF), which is a partner of Aleh Negev, helping the rehabilitation village with various projects, day trips, and the overall needs of the organization.

“Cooperation is key,” Osher Cohen says, “and we can see that the locals aren’t looking at us strangely, like they used to when we went out for special trips. The general community is accepting of the residents of Aleh Negev, and they’re viewed as a part of the community. I feel that JNF’s cooperation and help with [the residents’] integration into the larger Israeli society has greatly helped with this acceptance.”

Editor’s note: The 2016 Inclusion Special Section, published during Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, is made possible by the support of Jewish National Fund.

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