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The Trailblazer: Uri Reflects on Maslul's Success

The Trailblazer: Uri Reflects on Maslul's Success

For hundreds of Jerusalem kids, it's a good thing Uri Lahav went to sign up on the wrong day for  an after-school basketball club several decades ago. Instead the Director of Maslul- ALYN Hospital's Dyna and Fala Weinstock Therapeutic Sports Center turned to judo and hasn't looked back using his skills to help hundreds of kids with different difficulties use the center to make them believe they can do anything anyone their age can.

"I was seven or eight years old when I went to sign up for basketball, but the particular day I came there was no basketball. Instead, the guy who was showing me around said: 'Why don't you come watch this judo class. It's lots of fun.' So I entered and watched from the bench and after two minutes the instructor asked me if I wanted to join, so I removed my shoes and got on the mat and have been on it since then," the 42-year-old Jerusalemite says with a smile.

As youngsters dashed through the center's various activity rooms, Lahav explains how his own judo activities and his desire to help others led him to ALYN. "Besides enjoying practicing judo, I was also involved in helping the newcomers or the children who were having more difficulty to learn and catch up with the rest of the class. I would always find myself in the position of helping the others. Later on, after becoming a regular instructor I also decided to combine my love of helping others with teaching judo."

At university in Jerusalem and then in New York, he obtained degrees in occupational therapy and all along taught judo as a therapeutic tool for children with special needs and has been doing this for about 20 years now.

When the project started some eight years ago, there were only a handful of youngsters with physical disabilities who participated in specialized judo and swimming classes. "The idea was that these children who could really use some fun after-school activities and who didn't need more physiotherapy would need a "tailor-made" program for them in which they could participate on their own terms.

"We had four or five children in the judo program and a similar number in the swimming programs that first year, and that was a lot" says Uri. "Then more and more children signed up and we had to expand the program. Today there are special programs for children with disabilities who come in for three hours at a time. They work out at the gym, or have activities in other rooms, whether it is martial arts or soccer or even the climbing wall, and they all swim as well. We get children with Down syndrome, with cerebral palsy and children on the autism spectrum– they all come in for an elaborate program." All participants have to be referred by their doctor, occupational therapist or physical therapist.

As the afternoon starts, some youngsters head for the exercise room that includes a climbing wall, where an instructor is teaching other skills as well. Others rush to get into their judo whites to prepare for Uri's class. "We've grown to have over 300 children coming in every week for different programs. Some come with their schools…[and] we hear from their teachers that after having a sports class in the morning which is very intense and serious, but a lot of fun as well, they're better able to focus and concentrate."

The classes are built around the children's individual needs, not to groom champions.  We first try to understand who the children are and what their difficulties are, as well as their strong points and work with what we have".

Uri remembers one of his most outstanding participants, a young boy whose family was involved in a terror incident, and had lost several family members. The idea was that he come and take up a sport at Maslul "to help regain some kind of identity and be more like other children, and to put what happened to him off to the side a little bit. He very quickly was much happier and content with himself. For an hour a week he would have nothing else to think about."

However, the majority of the kids at Maslul are the kids who stay inside during recess rather than running around outside and chasing after a ball "because they have tried in the past and failed, were laughed at and made to feel small," Uri explains. "After they come to our classes for or year or two they are able to join their peers during recess at school and participate with greater ease."

A child  who's unable to keep up with the others on the long soccer field at school, whose brother plays well and whose father is a huge fan, can improve his skills and durability on Maslul's smaller field, with less threatening foam balls in use.

Both parent and participant quickly benefit from the program, the difference is noticeable almost immediately. "It's very easy to spot. The parents very quickly recognize the changes," says Uri. "The parents obviously see the kids more often than I do…but they very quickly notice that the child is really growing, not so much physically but in terms of self-esteem and in a general sense of accomplishment." Many find that after an hour of judo, going home and then sitting down to do homework is much easier after their children exert a lot of energy.

"Just by wearing the white uniform every week and acting like any regular child really helps him feel bigger and stronger. "He's getting increasingly more confident of himself and acts better at home, and is less clumsy" says Hodaya as she watched her son get ready for judo class. But it's not only little kids who benefit from the Maslul program. Margalit, a 23 year old ultra-orthodox woman in a wheelchair says: "I use the specialized weight room every week. It's a lot of fun, strengthens you physically and also gives you the feeling that you can do things that non-disabled people can do. So I don't feel like I'm in a wheelchair … it gives me self-confidence and I enjoy hanging out with others like myself."

He practices what he preaches in his judo class, where five youngsters were warming up by running around the mats before settling down for their lesson. "First of all, I want the children to have a good time," says Uri. "To learn judo in a regular setting would be much too frustrating for them. In small-sized classes I'm able to modify the techniques and games so they are successful, I adapt my demands and expectations of them while bearing in mind who these children are and what their abilities are. Naturally as they learn more, I increase the challenges in different ways. I never compare them to children who are studying judo elsewhere; it's like comparing apples and oranges. It's just not the same. They are much more at ease here than they would be at other places.

On a personal level, Uri says: "I love having the children have a choice whether to be into sports or not. If a clumsy, uncoordinated child wants to play soccer during recess, but he can't because he can't run and jump and kick like the others- then that's very frustrating. If he's taught how to play in a modified way and then hechooses whether to play or not; that's more fair. If he prefers to play music or be an artist, that's fine. But just because he's uncoordinated or has low muscle tone shouldn't mean he has to be disqualified or stigmatized. At Maslul we offer them the choice; we bridge the gap between children with difficulties and the typically developing ones and once we see that these kids can hold their own and run and climb and swing like everyone else…then we've met our goal."

Uri is extremely pleased he's been able to combine his occupational therapy training and love for therapeutic sports, all this under the umbrella of the ALYN  Pediatric Hospital, "which is such a blessing because ALYN is constantly innovating and thinking about children who have various degrees of difficulty…To have an entire center with a plethora of activities every week for children with a variety of difficulties- that's extremely special. This is one of the few centers where the emphasis is not necessarily the sports and the competition; rather the sports are just a means for the children to improve on the skills they're lacking."

Uri did actually get to play basketball, adding it to his judo regimen as a child. It's the success of Maslul, however, that really "makes me very happy because we want people with physical, emotional and social difficulties not to feel like they're limits, but rather that they can be like anyone else".