I've learned a lot from my three months working in Gilo: about what it's like to try to fix problems that are completely out of your control, how to overcome cultural and language gaps, how to use my weaknesses to my advantage, and that sometimes it's OK to admit when a problem is too large to overcome. My experience at Gilo started out with anticipation for the potential change I could innovate. I came with high hopes, connecting with Moriya (the Maleh room's manager; click here for a review of what JDC-Israel's Maleh program is) instantly on both a professional and individual level, and with a plan of action. I was going to work in three stages: 1) get to know the kids and gain trust, 2) help them discover and/or cultivate a talent or passion that could support their studies, 3) guide them towards an end-of-year project that will help them improve themselves and share with the community in some way.
Then I hit a wall. Make that several walls. The kids didn't come. When they did they were extremely difficult. Sometimes I was so tired by what I knew the day was going to be like I didn't want to come myself. Many teachers and school leaders treated the space as somewhere to throw the least wanted kids. I was alone in the room a lot and had to deal with the constant flow of the problems that came through without having a firm handle on the school structure, layout, names of people, where things are, or which kids are even in the program for that matter. And then there were days I couldn't go because of other JDC related projects and trips. I simply wasn't able to establish a constant routine or weekly flow with the kids. And then I hit the worst problem: I felt myself sometimes disliking the children.
It started slowly at first, anger and frustration, overwhelming feelings of disappointment and irritation seeped into my bones. Then I started looking at the kids differently. The boy who tried to staple the other one's eye with a staple gun was unreachable. The boy who refused to pay attention to me or work during our time was a lost cause. The girl who would rather play with makeup and facebook was better off that way. It wasn't constant feeling, it came and left, but I became guilty of acting just like everyone else who has interacted with these children. You are a waste. You don't matter. Get away from me, I don't want to deal with you. You are already too far lost...
Ever since that difficult hump I've been trying to bounce back and think of ways to make things better. I brainstormed about what was fixable. I wrote up a proposal for a community circle program. I began talking seriously with all of the volunteers: shinshinim on their sh'nat sherut (year of service), chayalim (soldiers), teachers, friends at home. I tried going back to square one and connecting with the kids through sharing stories from New York, showing them pictures, playing games, asking about their lives. And it got better, but I still had thoughts of despair and criticism. There were times when all I wanted to do was grab my things and stomp out. But whenever I felt anger or frustration swell up, I tried to remember my original goal to connect with the kids. To give the kids who are told "no" by everyone a "yes" instead. I fought my emotions and fastened on a smile, looked the kids in the eye, and started over and over again.
But Moriya was never like that. With each child, teenager, soldier, volunteer, teacher, and school leader who came into the room, her eyes lit up with warmth. Kids would curse loudly and interrupt her mid-sentence. She wouldn't blink an eye and simply barrel through. She looked everyone directly into the eye and always smiled with sincere warmth and respect despite what might have happened moments before. She didn't just give second chances, with her it was understood that there would always be another chance. She never let the rough, angry, sloppy armor of fear the kids hid behind deter her. She never saw them as their weaknesses, rather celebrated every single small accomplishment. A child refused to show up and then poked their head in later? Kol hakavod (good for you)! A child punched the wall in anger last week and this week only kicked a chair? Kol hakavod! A child opened up and said all these horrible things about their lives? She helped them see what they were really feeling. It takes a true Tadzhik to bring out the best in every person all the time. You watch helplessly at the play that unfolds each day: gawk at the gaudy clothing and makeup, listen to the cursing and screaming, watch the hits and the rolling fights on the floor, sit helplessly as they do whatever they want with complete disregard or care. But Moriya doesn't see that. She sees what they can be and the jewels of goodness they have already collected. Giving true kavod to every single child. That's Moriya's way.
Today I said good bye to Moriya, Gilo, the Maleh room, the tzevet (team of volunteers and teachers), the kids with a mixture of relief and guilt. We had a beautiful Hanukah party that the kids planned from beginning to end. All were somber behind our smiles and laughter. N. flipped pancakes he made from scratch. L. and E. collected money from everyone, organized it, and arrived with heaps of delicious fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and pastries. B. and S. chopped the salad. Moriya baked incredible rolls and made hummus from scratch. We all sat down to a fancy, long table covered with a shiny green tablecloth and red paper napkins scattered among piles of food. Then we came together for a final good bye to Moriya, where she gave each person a thoughtful gift with personalized notes. When each person received their gift they were told to give thanks for anything they felt. All thanked Moriya for her kavod, her pure, untarnished respect and belief in them; for giving them the safe space they so yearned for, for helping them discover the good in themselves.
I hugged everyone good bye and whispered in each child's ear how special I think they are and how I know they will succeed in anything they work hard for if they believe in themselves. I tried to personalize each card with a picture that represents what I've learned about them. I'm leaving in the middle of something I committed to for the first time in my life. I'm ashamed of the relief I feel. I'm doing the one thing I swore not to do: I'm quitting on them. I know I've failed in some way. But as I said good bye, there were real hugs, real smiles, real tears. And that means something. Maybe making a difference doesn't have to be anything big at all. And maybe it doesn't have to be for a long time either. Maybe sometimes it simply means giving everyone the kavod they deserve during the moments that you are there.