Jul 23, 2015  By Alana Kessler  Category: Special Needs,

Bustling Mahane Yehuda shuk slows down to welcome wheelchair users

Photo: LOTEM - Making Nature Accessible

Nature is everywhere. Depending on where one lives, the landscape may differ, but the outdoors and all it provides is available to anyone. But although nature is available to all, it is not accessible to all. For people with intellectual or physical disabilities, activities such as exploring a neighborhood, going on a hike, and even smelling fresh flowers become a challenge, and for some, might not even be an option. 

LOTEM-Making Nature Accessible makes limitations disappear by adapting nature programs for individuals with special needs in an appropriate and engaging way.

I started volunteering with LOTEM this winter, and since my first visit to a weekly nature club for adults with intellectual and physical disabilities, I have been inspired and amazed by all LOTEM does. Holding true to its mission of "making nature accessible," LOTEM provides school programs inside and outside the classroom, clubs, day trips, special events, and much more. 

I have seen firsthand the impact of programming on participants as they have fun, feel and experience elements of nature, and learn something new. Each group of children or adults is different and requires a different approach. All of the activities and lessons run by LOTEM volunteers provide direct and personal attention to every participant. Witnessing this and being a part of these programs makes me very proud to be involved in such an incredible organization.
Photo: LOTEM - Making Nature Accessible
Nature club at LOTEM's Elwyn facility. 

I started and concluded my journey with LOTEM at the Elwyn center in Jerusalem, where LOTEM runs a weekly nature club. Every week, four groups of between eight to 12 very special adults enjoy a nature-themed lesson and activities. Returning to the Elwyn center after my first visit to the nature club a couple of months earlier was a very moving experience. Seeing familiar faces overwhelmed me with emotion and brought me back to my first exposure to the work LOTEM does. 

I am not sure if I was remembered, but instantly I started to rebuild the connection with the adults. The barrier of language and disability was still an obstacle but knowing that all aspects of the club brought happiness, education, and the universal toy of nature into the adults' lives every week was an empowering realization.

Each group included adults with various disabilities, and from room to room the program evolved to fit and address the needs of each individual. The program was engaging and interactive. It is always so amazing to be part of the experience of someone feeling soil for the first time, smelling and touching flowers, and decorating with a paint brush and paint.

Taking students outside the classroom to explore their surroundings is meaningful and important. LOTEM runs field trips, including outings for integrated classes that are mixed with a few students with special-needs students. One of the most impactful experiences I had was on a field trip with two classes of students with cerebral palsy through the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalam and the Mahane Yehuda shuk (market). 

Ten students and 11 teachers took part in the outing, in addition to the LOTEM national service volunteer and me. As we rolled the students through the Nachlaot neighborhood for an educational tour, I was so impressed with the acceptance within the neighborhood and also the behavior and reactions from the students. They felt the walls, breathed the air, smelled the scents of the shuk, and saw an environment outside of their daily routines. On the tour we visited an old well, and using a small model, we helped each student "draw water from the well" to help them understand the well's purpose. Before transitioning into the shuk, they practiced trading money for materials and learned about the history of the shuk.

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As we moved into the shuk for lunch and to buy snacks, the once busy market I know so well transformed into a more patient, tolerant environment for the students. It was incredible to see them pick and buy food from different vendors. Having such a tour is an that will resonate with me, and hopefully them, forever.

Each program I joined, I would proudly wear my lime green LOTEM T-shirt. I know LOTEM will only continue doing such incredible things and I hope to stay involved. Volunteering became more than completing service hours for me; I became part of a community. Nature is a universal toy. Nature teaches, heals, provides joy and growth. 

Alana Kessler lives on Long Island, N.Y. During her 2014-2015 gap year in Israel on the Kivunim program, she interned with LOTEM in its Jerusalem center.