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Healing the Little Girl Within

by cpt. A.Y. Katsof
May 19, 2019

“Spring Fever” means children are counting down to the last day of school, planning a laid-back summer vacation.  For Chani Lavi, there’s no time to spare. She has only a few months left until the next school year begins and there are so many kids counting on her from the heart of Israel.  Only by some miracle will she be able to meet all their needs, but she’ll do what she can.

Chani Lavi grew up in an impoverished household and never met her father.  To make matters worse, her mother struggled with mental illness, institutionalized on many occasions. Although emergency intervention was available, Chani spent the early years of her life missing crucial elements of a healthy childhood.

“Many times, there wasn’t enough food. With such poor nutrition my hair was short and balding.”

At school, when she told a cafeteria worker, “I’m hungry.  Can I have food?” she was turned away. She became resourceful, bagging fruits and vegetables in the marketplace in exchange for food.  Her hygiene needs were not met, which led to social unacceptance at school. Although her kind grandmother helped whenever she could, she died at the age of 96, leaving Chani and her mother with no extended family support.

Chani today, with a picture of herself as a child, in the background.

Through all the suffering one image is prominent in her memory.  Through social services, Chani received a worn-out, used school backpack with substandard supplies. She had to use it for first through fourth grade, while at the beginning of each year, her classmates proudly carried their new brightly colored backpacks filled with every item they needed for school.  Of all the things she lacked, not fitting in with her classmates was most painful.

The upcoming holiday of Lag Ba’Omer, (beginning on Wednesday night May 22, 2019), marks the end of a plague that killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students. Our tradition teaches that these holy men received this punishment for not dealing with each other with the amount of mutual respect required of men of their spiritual stature.  Self-respect and respect for others was of the highest importance to little Chani.

Beginning in fifth grade, things changed for the better for Chani.  She was placed with a loving foster family. She received a new backpack, and much more.  Her new family surrounded her with support and a sense that she could be proactive. One way they accomplished this was by arranging for Chani to make a weekly visit to a girl her age with Downs Syndrome as a way to do community service.

“I felt uncomfortable at first.  I didn’t know what to do. But my family and the girl’s family were very kind and supportive until I had confidence and was able to look forward to my visits.”  

She now understands that by encouraging her to be kind and thoughtful of others, her foster family was providing her with a self-help therapy of being a giver.

Now Chani, a mother of two children, lives in Alon, a growing community in the Benjamin region, of just under 1,000 residents.  She has a full-time job, she is a volunteer policewoman, and is studying towards a degree in security and home front defense.

The owner of San Sport, making sure all the backpacks are perfect.

“For the little girl inside me who had to face the new school year in shame, I started ‘A Backpack for Every Child’.”

Last year, together with The Heart of Israel and other private donors, Chani was able to provide 300 colorful, orthopedic Kal-Gav (an Israeli company that gives Chani a significant discount on their high-quality products) backpacks, filled with age-appropriate supplies and a personal blessing for each child who is part of her Club.

“I don’t receive any names. Family social services gives me the number of children that are in need and I do everything confidentially, so no one feels embarrassed. That’s why I call my program a Club.”

How did Chani choose to run her program in the settlements north of Jerusalem?  She quotes a famous Jewish law, The poor of your city should be considered first.  As a resident of the region herself, she sees the prophecy of the Jewish People filling the land of Israel.  However, she knows that our enemies are not only human. Poverty threatens the growth of families and robs the joy out of childhood.  Although she received praise for her efforts last year, she knows there were so many she couldn’t help. There were 1,600 requests for school packs.  Even with the discounts and volunteers, she had to turn many people away.

“A day before school started a young father called to ask for help for his daughter beginning first grade.  He just couldn’t afford to get her the things she needed. It pains me to know that his little girl would be in the same situation I was in.  But I simply had no more resources. I myself pay full price for my children’s backpacks, even though I qualify for the club.”

School supplies and the special note that will go inside every backpack. Chani packs each backpack with love.

Chani is surprised that it is still painful for her to tell her story. It’s still hard for her because she sees how much pain and hardship still exists in the world and how many children are going through the same experience that she had.

“My dream is to provide every child in the entire Land of Israel the things they need to learn and grow.  This project has become my third child! But even when I am limited, I feel it is a privilege to do whatever I can.  It is still a therapy for me. Each backpack I give away takes away the pain of the little girl inside me that didn’t have what she needed.”

The Heart of Israel is honored to collaborate with Chani’s project, A Backpack for Every Child, but this year we are aiming to double our commitment. Last year, we were able to participate in presenting 300 children with backpacks. This year’s goal is to provide 600 needy children with backpacks. Buying in bulk, we were able to get the cost of just one backpack, including all the supplies, down to $25.

You can now join us, with any amount of donation and be part of Chani’s dream.

Together, we can ensure the next school year in the Holy Land will be a time of great joy for the 1,600 children waiting for a backpack.  May we merit to see the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy (8:5):

“And the streets of the city shall be filled, with boys and girls playing.”