The fifth annual Jerusalem Marathon is only a couple of weeks away. Among the race participants busy now with final training is a group of young people with disabilities who will cover the course thanks to specialized equipment and the support of 20 dedicated Israeli police officers.
These young people gearing up for the marathon’s 800-meter community race are residents of ALEH, a medical and rehabilitation facility providing comprehensive care to children and young adults with severe impairments. Most of them cannot walk, but that it not stopping them from ditching their wheelchairs and striding along Rupin Road with police escorts.
For several months, the police officers from Jerusalem’s Lev Habira station have been coming to ALEH’s building in the capital’s Romema neighborhood once a week to help get the residents in shape for the big race. Most of the volunteers come in uniform, while those who show up even on their day off wear civilian clothing.
The majority of the 15 participating residents, ranging in age from 3 to 30, will move their legs as they are pushed in their walkers (either a frame walker or a specialized Hart Walker) along the racecourse. Some of the smaller children will use an apparatus known as an Upsee, a mobility device developed by Debby Elnatan, an Israeli mother with a son with cerebral palsy.
The Upsee lets children with motor impairment stand and walk with the help of an adult—in this case one of the police officers. The child’s erect body is strapped to the adult with a special harness, and his foot to the adult’s foot with a double sandal. The child faces out and can see where he is going, as he moves his lower limbs in tandem with the adult.
The athletes and their coaches haven’t let the cold, rainy, and even snowy winter weather get in the way of their two-hour training sessions. On nice days they’ve practiced outside, and when the weather has been inclement, the police have put the kids through their paces indoors.
This active partnership was initiated by Adi Parnasa, a Lev Habira station officer whose 30-year-old sister is an ALEH resident.
“I come here a lot for various events and celebrations. Our family is active here,” she told The Times of Israel as she pushed a teenager in his walker up a hill outside ALEH on a recent warm, sunny Sunday morning.
“I wanted to connect my colleagues at the station to ALEH, too. I was thinking of something that would be more long-term,” she said.
With the station commander’s permission, Parnasa invited some Aleh volunteer coordinators to make a presentation to her 80 fellow officers last fall. Twenty of them stepped forward to help prepare the residents for the marathon.
According to Dov Hirth, who works in marketing and development for ALEH, the police officers went through the organization’s regular two-day training course for new volunteers.
“They had to be taught how to safely lift residents, and how to take them in and out of their wheelchairs and walkers,” Hirth said.
While Parnasa was accustomed to visiting ALEH, most of her colleagues were inexperienced at interacting with young people with cerebral palsy or other neurological or genetic conditions that render them non-ambulatory or non-verbal, and often with profound intellectual disabilities.
“Our group was shown around the whole facility. The first two meetings were hard. My colleagues were very shocked at first,” Parnasa said.
But before long, the officers began to feel more comfortable, and each was paired with a buddy among the residents for marathon training. In some cases, two officers were assigned to work together with one resident.
“This is really a dream idea,” said Ruti Perry, head of physiotherapy at ALEH. “Today we talk a lot about health and physical fitness, and this is an example of how we can do this here.”
According to Perry, the residents’ training outdoors in a sports-like manner brings a measure of normalcy to the activity.
The ALEH residents get out of the building for various field trips to local attractions and shopping malls, but usually they are in their wheelchairs.
“It’s thanks to the police officers that these residents can get outside in their walkers and in Upsees,” Perry said as she watched the children going up and down the hill.
“Having the kids walk is something that takes a huge amount of manpower.”
For those among the 120 residents in ALEH’s Jerusalem facility (the organization has additional centers in Bnei Brak, Gedera and the Negev) who can and want to train, the opportunity to be in the marathon means a great deal.
Perry said that a 12-year-old boy with multiple syndromes who underwent chemotherapy for cancer last year, and faces open-heart surgery this year, is determined to participate.
Police officer Elhanan Maor discovered it was harder than expected to communicate with his training partner, but he has found this volunteering experience extremely satisfying overall.
Officer Hodaya Laviani agreed. “It’s important to recognize that there are people who are not in your situation, and that it’s important to volunteer with them and to try and enrich their lives,” she said.
This started out as a limited volunteer commitment for the police officers, but some of them are already thinking ahead as to how they might be able to keep coming regularly to ALEH.
“I would definitely like to continue volunteering, time permitting,” said Maor.
According to Perry, the residents’ ability to walk with the help of their various apparatuses is something that can only be sustained with continued practice.
The Jerusalem Marathon comes only once a year, but with the help of Jerusalem’s finest, these young people with disabilities could make it to the finish line on March 13 and then keep on running all the way to next year’s race.