There are many organizations in Israel whose mission is to enhance the lives of children with disabilities. But what about the siblings of those children, who might not get as much attention since parents understandably have to dedicate a large portion of their time taking care of those who need additional attention?

In order to help fill that void, and engage and empower such kids, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) has developed a nature education and leadership program that allows siblings to bond with other children growing up under similar circumstances.

The program, called “Achim Ba’Shetach” or “Siblings in the Field,” was launched this past year in the central Israeli town of Modi’in for children ages nine to 10. The youngsters meet on a regular basis out in nature, where they hike and are given workshops on outdoor skills, and ultimately, are taught how to be nature guides.

The initiative falls under the umbrella of SPNI’s education department, which, according to their website, has the mission of engaging “Israeli youth in schools, summer camps, training programs and youth groups, teaching them about the variety of wildlife, the natural habitats and unique ecosystems in Israel, creating a lifelong bond with natural Israel. Our education programs affect the lives of thousands of Israeli children each year, fostering leaders for tomorrow who are connected and dedicated to their homeland and its precious natural legacy.”

In addition to educating about the land, the sessions include personal consultations and group meetings that provide the children with a platform to share their stories and recognize their particular family dynamics.

Tal Gitman, SPNI’s coordinator of public activities in Modi’in, decided to launch the initiative after the Modi’in Municipality in the community approached her about the need for after-school programming for the other children in families grappling with special needs. Gitman was exposed to a similar nature-based model for siblings of children with disabilities taking place in the southern city of Eilat.

“The parents expressed the need for activities for other kids in the family,” Gitman told JNS. “And in one specific case, it was a child whose sibling with disabilities lives outside of the home in a specialized facility, who admitted to his parents when they finally came home at the end of the day, after work and visiting with their other child, that he felt he was getting less attention at home.”

There are currently 10 children in the siblings’ group, which meets after school every other week for an hour-and-a-half. The sessions take place in the Givat Hatitora nature park in Modi’in and made possible thanks to funding from the municipality. They are led by an educational psychologist, also an SPNI nature expert, along with youth counselors.

However, Gitman is adamant that the meetings are not traditional “therapy sessions,” but educational experiences in nature. “The siblings meet and are able to talk to each other, and to their counselors, about their situations,” she says. “And they have the ability to relate to each other.”

Sharing common ground

Lea Goldberger’s 10-year-old daughter, Noa Aharonovich (Lea is divorced), is a participant in the group. Lea’s oldest child, who is now 19, was born with cerebral palsy, partial blindness and other disabilities.

She tells JNS that she “has been waiting for years” for this type of program. “As parents, we take care of our child with disabilities, and there are many stories of siblings who don’t get enough attention. I’ve done my best as a mom to mitigate the experience for the other kids,” she said, when it comes to Noa and another sibling.

However, Goldberger adds “it bothered me that besides [for] me, no one else gave them [the siblings] a place to share their feelings and experiences.”

She explains that this population of children is unique. “Kids from divorced families you see [are given attention], but kids with siblings with disabilities are rarely noticed. They are transparent in that sense.”

Goldberger says that for years, Noa didn’t want to invite friends over, believing that they wouldn’t understand what it was like to have a disabled sibling. “So for me, the greatness and advantage of this group is the fact that all of these kids are the same; they all have disabled siblings, and that common ground is enough for you to feel 100 percent equal, as you share experiences.”

She adds that “bonding through nature is great, but even more so this shared commonality, where for the first time you have a place where you can be 100 percent yourself without holding back and realize, ‘Hey I’m not alone,’ is so important because these are rare experiences. And she [Noa] immediately understood this.”

Gitman explains that at their last session, the plan is for the siblings to lead a nature hike as guides along with their families, including with their siblings with disabilities, on a fully accessible trail as a cathartic and empowering experience prior to spring vacation.