I recently had the opportunity to travel to Israel to volunteer at Save a Child’s Heart (SACH). But before I describe my experience let’s rewind back to last Fall when I became great friends with an individual through Guelph Hillel. Before I even got to know her very well, she couldn’t stop talking about SACH. She told me all about this incredible organization, and with little convincing, we were booking our flights to Israel.
My role while volunteering in Israel was to stay at the home where the kids and their mothers stay while they are either pre-or-post-surgery. My job was similar to being a camp counsellor, allowing the kids to just be kids and to give the mothers a “break”. If a child is over five years old, they come without a caregiver, in order to bring more kids for surgery. It is obviously very difficult for a child to leave home by themselves, which is why it is so important to make sure the home is such a welcoming environment. I played with the kids, did arts and crafts, took lots of pictures and videos and sang lots of songs. There was never a dull moment during the day!
I thought I knew what to expect when I would arrive at SACH. I would play with the kids to keep their minds off of their health conditions and that they are far away from home. Everything changed when I first walked through the door of the SACH home. In Canada, we grow up knowing how privileged we are to have healthcare. We all experience sickness, whether it is ourselves, a friend, a parent, or grandparent. It is hard to put into words my experience, but when you walk into a room full of children (newborn babies to kids up to 18) and know that not one of them would survive if they were not being treated in Israel, it sure changes your perspective and gives you a loud wake-up call.
In the 2 weeks I spent in Israel I have never laughed so much in my life. Only a few of the children and mothers spoke bits English, which meant we had to communicate in other ways. At first, this was challenging. I didn’t know any of the kids or moms and they didn’t know me. But within a day, that quickly changed. I quickly realized that all kids speak “kid” which means that as long as you are there to smile, giggle, give lots of hugs and play with them, you are in for a lot of fun! With the adults, it was definitely more challenging, but with time and patience we figured it out. What we liked to call “being plopped”, meant that the mothers could cook, clean, and relax while we spent time with their kids. SACH proved that non-verbal communication tells an entire story.
Some individuals did not speak a word of English and yet I feel that I know them so well and had so many conversations with them. One of my favourite memories was every night when our shift was over, we would head out for dinner. Whenever we walked towards the doors to leave, the kids would come running to us and say “you come back?” before we left. We reassured them that we would only be gone for a little while and when we returned, the kids would come running to the door waiting for hugs.
Although I was only at the house for 2 weeks, the children’s growth was incredible to see, both physically and socially. In 2 weeks, many post-surgery kids grew stronger every day, gaining more energy to even just run around outside. Kids who just arrived at the house started to acclimatize to their new home-away-from-home and start to make new friends. I got to see the 5000th Save a Child’s Heart patient arrive which is a monumental SACH achievement. I got to meet people from Uganda, Kenya, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana and Kurdistan; people from countries I probably would never have had any contact with otherwise. I tasted cultural foods and learned a few words and songs in Swahili. I got to learn about them, and they got to learn about me. The welcoming warmth that circled the home is something you don’t see very often.
SACH is an unbelievable organization for so many reasons but what I find so special is its diversity. Although I was in Israel, it didn’t feel like I was just in Israel. I got to experience little pockets from all over the world. Most of the patients were from Africa but I worked with volunteers from Israel, London, Australia, Canada, and the United States, truly making SACH a global project.
Save a Child’s Heart is yet another reminder to me of how special Israel is and the exemplary leadership Israel is continuously demonstrating to the world. I feel very privileged to have been able to travel to Israel to spend 2 weeks at SACH. My advice to future volunteers: go all in. Make the most of your time at the SACH house. Whether you are a part or full time volunteer, take the time to get to know everyone. Take the time to listen and learn about each family’s story. Ask questions. Step out of your comfort zone. Walk in the kitchen and ask what they are cooking, try it. Learn a few words. I promise you that you will leave so thankful that you made such wonderful connections with a world of people.