By age 6, Dana was spending time on the street, looking for anywhere to be but home. She was told that she was being beaten for being a bad child — and she believed it.
The change occurred upon joining one of Orr Shalom‘s Therapeutic Family Group Homes, where she discovered a new world and a different reality. Today Dana Russo is 22 years old and a counselor in one of Orr Shalom’s Family Group Homes – the place where she grew up and the only place she really calls home.
“With the help of my close friends in the Group Home, I understood that this is my new home, and the ‘strangers’ trying to help me were now my ‘house parents.’ I feared that they could never understand me, or the violence I experienced. But they did understand, and in the second that I realized this, even if at times I did not agree with them, I truly felt that they were my new parents.”
“My name is Dana Russo, and I am 22 years old. Today, I work as a counselor in one of Orr Shalom’s Therapeutic Family Group Homes, the same home I grew up in,” Dana proudly explains.
“My childhood was very tough. Already from the young age of 6, 7 years old, I would wander the streets until late at night. I was looking for ways to escape being home, to be there as little as possible, to experience what was happening there as little as possible.
“They labeled me a troubled child, a bad girl, not good, undisciplined. And then at age 10, I was placed into one of Orr Shalom’s Therapeutic Family Group Homes, and I was certain that I was the problem, and that it was my fault for being sent away.
“My mother came to visit me and Orr Shalom really made sure that I kept a relationship with my biological family, nurtured within a healthy environment. This is something I have learned to appreciate.
“Then, when I was around 14, a pair of angels came to the Group Home: a new ‘house mother’ and ‘house father’ who simply decided to leave their previous lives and everything good that they had before, to live in the Group Home. This means taking everything you have, moving into a new home, and suddenly to live with 12 children, of all ages, none of whom are your biological children,” Dana recalled.
“From the moment they entered the home, I rebelled. I was always trying to run away and I fought with them a lot. But suddenly there was a response. I knew that I had no biological connection to anyone there, but everyone there was my family — because they cared.
“I began National Service because I saw the National Service girls that were with us in our Family Group Home. Through them I saw what volunteering was and I saw what it meant for these girls to give two years of their life to others. I wanted that too — but I also wanted to serve in the IDF. So, I did one year of National Service, to be in a place that gives back, to be on the other side.
“When I finished that year of National Service, and began my army service as a commander in the Gadna program preparing volunteers from around the world for the IDF, I was suddenly exposed to young people from many different places. It was at this point that I realized that basically Orr Shalom is my life! It is who I am. It is what I am!
“From living in a Family Group Home I moved onto the Orr Shalom Graduate Program, a program that accompanies, guides and advises each participant as they begin to enter into independent living. The program is so crucial because most of the kids do not have anywhere to go after leaving the Group Home. It is either ‘end up on the streets’ or ‘manage on your own.’ The Graduate Program makes sure that each graduate has a safe place to go.”
When asked what she would want to tell her younger self if she could, Dana smiles. “That you are not alone. Even if you feel alone, and even if you think no one will understand — and you may be right, it’s possible that people really may not understand you, but they want to care for you. And it is totally okay that people who did not bring you into this world still want to care for you. And it is okay to allow them to do so. That might be all you have in this world, but that’s enough. That is more than enough.”
Orr Shalom is Israel’s leading nonprofit organization caring for children and youth at extreme risk who were removed from their biological family homes by the welfare authorities due to extreme parental dysfunction, severe neglect, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and trauma. For 40 years, Orr Shalom has set out to provide those children with what was withheld from them — immediate protection, a warm home, an embracing hug, a caring family that provides everything a child needs for healthy development and a real chance for a better present and a brighter future.
Orr Shalom’s Therapeutic Family Group Homes provide a warm and supportive family framework to over 1,400 children who have been removed from their homes and their parents’ custody. They serve as an anchor and provide a framework that is consistent, encouraging and loving. This is carried out by Orr Shalom’s team of therapeutic professionals, who provide critical emotional, psychological, and educational support throughout the children’s stay in the Group Home.
Today, Orr Shalom operates 21 Therapeutic Family Group Homes situated across the country, each providing focused support targeted to the specific needs of the children. Among them: Group Homes specializing in teen girls in distress who require intensive psychological assistance, Homes for children from the ultra-Orthodox population, and Homes that enable keeping siblings together. All the Homes provide a warm and loving family to 10-12 children each, from age eight to 18. And while their family paths may be different, they all need what everyone needs: someone to believe in them.
To support Orr Shalom’s invaluable work, click here.