Wounded warriors and victims of terrorism are part of the Israeli reality, even more so after last summer’s Gaza conflict and the recent attacks in Jerusalem. Now, the Ramat Gan-based Israel Sport Center for the Disabled (ISCD) is starting a new program with the Israel Defense Forces to help more soldiers injured in battle.
“We are trying to do more for the wounded soldiers,” said Stuart Nizkin, executive director of American Friends of the Israel Sport Center for the Disabled, which is the institution’s fundraising arm located outside of Chicago. “We have an amazing facility. We are unique. There is nothing like us in the world.”
The mission of the ICSD – to rehabilitate the physically challenged through sports – started in 1960 with the treatment of Polio victims and developed over the years to service a wide range of disabled youth and adults. Today, more than 3,000 members participate in 20 different sports activities, including wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis, swimming, wheelchair rugby, table tennis, track, wheelchair dancing and wheelchair judo.
“You take a child who was maybe injured in a terrorist attack, and he comes to the sports center because he has no more use of his legs and learns how to play wheelchair basketball. Gets on a team. Then he starts to feel like, ‘Hey I can play basketball just like any other kid my age. There’s nothing I can’t do.’ So that message is still one that is very strong today. It’s a very powerful message,” said Nizkin.
In addition to terrorist victims and wounded soldiers, the most common types of disabilities are spina bifida and cerebral palsey. The ISCD has also begun to rehabilitate older stroke victims with table tennis being the preferred sport for their rehabilitation. The center has even started to take on some children on the autism spectrum.
There is a kindergarten program with around 100 children, and they receive one-on-one attention that helps them learn to live their disability because many children born with spina bifida or cerebral palsy think they will grow out of it. After kindergarten, the kids are placed back into regular schools with the message that, according to Nizkin, there is “nothing they can’t do and that’s really the strong message of the sports center.”
Many of the children from the ISCD go onto successful lives in the army, college, the workplace and some even compete internationally in the Paralympics. The center’s executive director Boaz Kramer, who began practicing disabled sports at the ISCD at the age of 5, won a Silver Medal in the wheelchair tennis doubles tournament at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. A young woman from the ISCD will be competing in table tennis at the Brazil Paralympic Games in 2016.
“It’s really a special place. We essentially keep hope alive for a lot of these people. We give them hope. We give them the tools that they need to go on to the real world and be productive members of society where in some places they might just be thrown out,” said Nizkin. “So it’s kind of a hidden gem in Israel and we’re working really hard to raise more awareness for it here in the U.S. because it’s such a magical place. Israel and kids and sports. And it’s really special.”