8.5% of all Israeli children and youth have special needs that affect their daily functioning (Brookdale, 2014). When it comes to participation in typical Israeli childhood activities such as youth movements, however, these children often cannot participate. Youth movements provide a fun, enriching educational environment for 250,000 Israeli children and youth. Children with special needs, however, see their peers participating in such activities and may struggle with the knowledge that they cannot join in.
It is important for these children to participate in mainstream activities, allowing the child with special needs to feel included in their society, experience normative leisure activities, and grow as they earn positions of responsibility within the movement. The other children have an opportunity to experience diversity and learn acceptance. In recent years, efforts by Israel’s leading youth movements to include children with special needs have gained momentum. These efforts have highlighted the need to expand the number of youth movement chapters that cater to all children and to provide a support system to guide and monitor the inclusion process.
JDC-Ashalim’s Youth Movement Inclusion Program works with ten of Israel’s thirteen youth movements to help facilitate inclusion of children with special needs. The program aims to ensure that every child can be in a youth movement by supporting group leaders as they include individual children with special needs within chapters or start chapters specifically for this group of children. It will also develop new roles for teenagers with special needs to coincide with the time when their peers become counselors in the youth movements. Because of these efforts, the program will raise awareness within communities throughout Israel about the needs and capabilities of children with special needs.
The program has trained and will continue to train counselors, group leaders, and youth movement staff through yearly seminars, certification courses, and specialized classes on productive ways of working with children with special needs. The program has developed manuals for group leaders and staff, providing ideas for new activities and advice on managing their chapters. The manual will be updated to address new challenges and opportunities as the program expands.