ELIYA (pronounced eh-LEE-yah), the acronym for The Israeli Association for the Advancement of Blind and Visually Impaired Children, serves more than 100 children, infants to mid-teens, through its various programs. The organization's three branches, located in Petah Tikva, Jerusalem and Be'er Sheva, offer mommy-and-me classes and a daily preschool program for children (ages 1-3), while ELIYA's summer camps and retreats bring blind or visually impaired older children together with family, friends and volunteers.
At ELIYA's main branch in Petah Tikva, coordinator of resource development Orly Layzer pointed out features that reflect the careful consideration behind every aspect of the schools' approach. For example, the color scheme -- white and red -- offers a contrast, which children with partial vision can discern and use to orient themselves. Classroom floors are divided into three tactile parts -- wood, carpet and rubber -- so children can use their sense of touch to find their way around the classroom. The same principle applies to the playground, where a little boy was able to keep his toy truck within the bounds of a gravel area by pulling back whenever he encountered a surface that felt foreign.
The hydrotherapy center provides another means for the children to work on their sense of orientation and comfort in new environments. ELIYA also provides rehabilitative horseback riding, offering blind and visually impaired children an enjoyable way to improve their navigational abilities and develop steadiness and balance.
ELIYA's chadar choshech (dark room), helps pinpoint what, if any, vision a child has. Computers, glow-in-the-dark stars and even disco balls become the sole source of light in the room, allowing teachers and therapists to track a child's eyesight. Then, having identified the limits of the field of vision, staff can help a child maximize abilities. Teacher-child ratios are at most 1-to-2, and ELIYA individualizes its program for each child.
This degree of specialization is what ELIYA executive director Michael Segal considers key to accomplishing ELIYA's goals. "We want to help children with visual impairments to become more independent people.... It's a different concept for philanthropy -- a philanthropy of excellence," he said.
Segal uses a Hebrew phrase, mitztainut lo miskainut (which roughly translates as "excellence not pity"), to express ELIYA's mission. The organization also works hard to accommodate a diverse religious population. The Jerusalem branch, for instance, serves Orthodox and secular Jews as well as Muslims and Christians, and tries to provide for the needs and observances of each.
Segal began volunteering for ELIYA in 1984, in response to an advertisement he saw in a local Israeli newspaper. His involvement grew, and in 1991 he took on the role of executive director, his current post. Segal has never taken a salary for his ELIYA work, and in 2005 he received the President's Award for Volunteerism. But he humbly deflects questions about this choice. "I wanted to continue the work, and I was able to.... I grew up with the notion of wanting to do for the community," he said.
ELIYA hopes soon to have an interactive Web site where parents and the general public can access information about the blind and visually impaired.
Another special program is ELIYA's summer camp for visually impaired children. Some attendees (ages 5-13) are past graduates of ELIYA's preschool program, but others come from different parts of the country. Together with volunteers, they participate in a full range of regular camp activities -- arts and crafts, sports, cooking, nature trips and music.
Segal told a story of one graduate whom he met on an air force base years after he'd left the school. Despite his visual impairment, this graduate now held an extremely sensitive job in the army. It felt wonderful, egal said, to see the young man had carved out a rewarding niche for himself.
ELIYA-USA will honor Maury and Lisa Friedman with its 2008 Visionary Award on Nov. 9 at the Skirball Cultural Center.