It’s not every day you’ll find a person who takes a month and a half off work each year to travel 5,000 miles –– on his own tab – just to spend time volunteering with disabled children in Jerusalem. But for one devout Christian man, Curtis Sparks of Anchorage, Alaska, this has been his routine and calling for the last seven years.
“Learning more about disabilities can make you humble,” says Sparks, 42, as to why he takes on this long-haul volunteer mission every year, usually around May when he can book days off from his job with Hope Community Resources as a live-in caretaker of three disabled men in Anchorage.
This past trip (2012), Sparks brought his eight-year-old son, Tacoma, to join him for the first time as he volunteered at Aleh, Israel’s largest network of residential facilities for children with severe cognitive and physical disabilities. It’s the same place he goes back to every year.
Why would he want to spend his valuable time in Israel?
“I prayed to the Lord to go there, not only to give thanks but to help anyone with disabilities no matter their belief,” he says. “I want to be around these kids all the time so I go there every summer, and go right to the Aleh center. Over the years I’ve got a chance to learn more about them and send them cards, to develop more than a friendship – to develop a family.”
Centers of support
Aleh (the word in Hebrew means “leaf” and also “go up”) has centers in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Gedera and the Negev. Some of the children who are treated there, or live there, have cerebral palsy or debilitating genetic diseases. Others have suffered severe brain damage or physical injury.
It’s often the last option for parents who understand that they cannot keep high-needs children at home, and it currently houses 650 children, 24 hours a day, every day of the year. The center also provides a day service for thousands of children who need special education and activities, but who can still live at home.
Aleh’s creed is to treat children with disabilities like any other children. Some dream of going to the beach, and Aleh will help take them there. For others, just getting the basic respiratory equipment to help them stay alive is enough.
Aleh was founded in 1982 by parents from Bnei Brak, an Orthodox Jewish community in Israel, who needed a solution for their severely disabled children.
While adhering to the religious code of conduct for Orthodox Jews, such as observing the Sabbath, maintaining a strict kosher diet and keeping the rules of modest dress, Aleh opens its doors to children from all walks of life -- religious, secular and non-Jewish.
Aleh directors say that their work could not be done without the help of the parents and volunteers such as Sparks.
Rockets and basketball hoops
But Sparks doesn’t fall into the category of a typical Aleh volunteer. He is neither a parent of one of the children at the center, nor is he a local Israeli or Jew looking to better the community or the land of Israel. He just comes to put a smile on the kids’ faces –- to be with them.
On a typical day, Sparks will spend a few hours in the morning hanging out with the kids, or helping those who can do arts and crafts. He comes back again in the evenings to spend more time with them.
This year he wanted his son to "see people for who they are and not for the way that they are made or shaped,” as he puts it.
Sparks also finds time on weekends to head down to Sderot, an Israeli city that was often bombarded by rockets from bordering Gaza. There he helps out before the Sabbath, spending time with the local kids or filling cartons of food that will be distributed to needy families.
As a past college basketball player standing six-foot-five, he’ll also shoot some hoops with the kids who are interested. For Sparks, it’s a way of “getting to know each other, to exchange stories.”
Israel for him has become a spiritual destination, a place where he can both give and get: “You don't know when that's going to be you, and this year I feel even more blessed because I could bring my son.”