A few years ago, I volunteered with an NGO in Jerusalem that cares for people with varying levels of intellectual disability, including Down Syndrome and autism. I had tumbled into it with no prior experience or knowledge of Hebrew, and I wasn’t sure what to expect or how I would respond. The originally-planned 3-month trip turned into a 15-month stay that continues to be remembered as the one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had, and it is what inspired this little write-up.
“Is it depressing?” asked the man who was offering us a ride from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.
It wasn’t the first time I had been asked this question about the work I do. In fact, if I weren’t involved in it myself, I might have wondered the same thing. The truth, however, is that it’s hard to be depressed in a place where love is as omnipresent as it is in the Beit Leo hostel. The people I care for, whom we call residents, live with their friends, some of them are even in relationships.
It isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, of course. There are good days, but there are also darker ones where uncontrollable mood swings and mental/physical inabilities overwhelm the residents.
Still, never before have I encountered a group of people so generous with their hugs and ‘I-Love-You’s. In Beit Leo, unlike in the real world, there is no reason to protect yourself or build walls. The only way is to be open and embrace the chaos.
Being here has allowed me to reflect upon the reactions of society towards anyone who is different. While people have been overwhelmingly positive towards the residents, one does encounter a reaction every now and then that is, if not negative, wary. When children, in their natural state and as of yet unaffected by societal norms, behave in unpredictable ways, we are not shocked. However, when it comes to adult behaviour, we possess an irrational need to restrict it within the confines of a box that we have created, one that is meant to determine what is “normal” and “acceptable”. Perhaps the lack of such a box is the most freeing aspect of being in Beit Leo.
So to answer the man’s question, no, it isn’t depressing. I’m happier the moment I step through the doors of Beit Leo. In here, nothing is normal; there is no predictable behaviour, no social conventions or pretensions. And sometimes, it feels more normal than the world outside.
It is 4 o’clock. Uriel, who has Down Syndrome, is seated with me on the balcony, eating a snack. Mid-bite, he stops and looks up at me. “Be happy,” he says. Then, looking down at his plate, he continues chomping on his apple, leaving me to marvel at the beautiful simplicity of his words.