We’re in the chapter of our lives where we’re learning the most and figuring out what we want to do and who we are. For some of us, that means taking a leap of faith and traveling somewhere completely new on our own. It takes leaving behind friends and family—all the things that make us comfortable—to find our passion. That’s exactly what two college students from the U.S., Alessandra Orellana and Jessica Shankman, did to leave their mark and make a difference in the world.
Alessandra Orellana is never sure how to best help the young girls of Beit Ruth to open up about their painful pasts. This time, Orellana was sitting with one of them, listening to her and talking about what they want to do for the day—and it happened. Her heartbreaking story of abuse and fear poured out of her soul as if she had been bursting to express it all along.
“Several of the girls at Beit Ruth have opened up to me,” said Orellana. “It makes me feel amazing— it shows that they have someone who’s there for them—someone to confide in, someone to trust.”
Orellana, a student at Ryerson University studying Child and Youth Care, learned about Beit Ruth, a home for at-risk girls in Israel, when she applied for an internship program with Career Israel, and felt inspired by the work volunteers do at the home for at-risk teen girls.
“I wanted to make a difference by bringing what I’ve learned at school to Israel,” said Orellana. “I want this experience to help me decide if I want to work with children with disabilities, and though it’s been hard because the girls have been through so much, I’m learning a lot from them about how to help others cope.”
But Orellana has been more than just someone for the girls to confide in, she’s been a mentor as well, organizing therapeutic activities to help them deal with issues and learn to express themselves in a healthy way. Her presence at Beit Ruth has an enormous impact. Their ability to share their stories of pain and hardship with someone new is rare. The girls Orellana helps have experienced physical as well as verbal abuse, neglect, murder and death of parents, gang violence, and family members with psychotic issues.
“I’ve heard the stories of every girl from a social worker at Beit Ruth, but hearing firsthand is different,” explained Orellana. “It’s harder hearing a child tell me how she was been beaten by her family, or that a parent died, or that her mother is considered ‘crazy’.”
Though some of the girls have the opportunity to go home for a weekend, parents usually do not visit their daughters at Beit Ruth. However, Orellana did experience one incidence when parents showed up.
“They were there to discuss the future of their child and whether or not it was safe for her to come home,” said Orellana. “The girl seemed very uninterested in the fact that her parents were there. She was neither happy nor sad.”
Knowing the story of this particular child and that the parents did not treat her well while at home, Orellana felt her role as a social worker needed to take gear.
“I felt a lot of anger seeing her parents there,” she said. “I was confused as to why they were allowed to be there since they have mistreated their daughter in the past.”
To Jessica Shankman, who interns at The Ethiopian National Project, a bright future lies ahead for the Israeli-Ethiopians. The Ethiopian National Project is a renowned non-profit organization in Tel Aviv that strengthens the involvement of Ethiopian-Israelis in Israeli society and provides social and educational opportunities to help Ethiopian-Israelis realize their full potential.
“I’ve learned so much from the kids,” said Shankman, a student at the University of Minnesota who is interning at The Ethiopian National Project for the summer also through Career Israel. “I talk to them about living in Israel and what it’s like to come from a war-torn country. It’s given me a new disposition.”
Shankman explained that through her experience working with Ethiopian-Israeli children, she’s learned how to overcome language barriers and communicate through games, sports, and body language.
“I use body language to communicate when I’m playing air hockey with the kids,” said Shankman. “Whenever something good happens, I may not understand the words they say but I see in their body language that they made an exciting move or are winning. It’s exciting when we’re on the same page and words don’t matter. We both light up when we know communication has been accomplished and that we understand each other.”
Orellana and Shankman’s internships differ in many ways, but their desire to work at nonprofits—specifically in Israel—is for the same reason. Out of 2.5 million children in Israel, a sky-high 350,000 are considered at risk and about 40 percent of Israeli children live below the poverty line, twice that of European countries, as per the Central Bureau of Statistics. Israel’s government relies heavily on the goodwill of non-profit organizations and volunteers.
The largest groups of at risk youth happen to be those who have recently immigrated from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, which is the main reason The Ethiopian National Project appealed to Shankman. Refugees may have come to Israel seeking safety, but many feel like outsiders who cope with discrimination on a daily basis, something that Shankman and the other volunteers work daily to combat.
“The first place I thought to go was Israel,” said Shankman, who is studying Child Psychology. “I knew that they had a lot of great things going on in the psychology field and wanted to study abroad without being away from home for an entire semester. For me, Career Israel’s two-month summer internship program was the perfect fit.”
Both Orellana and Shankman have formed bonds with people from completely different backgrounds, who speak different languages, from different cultures, and as much as they have helped the kids, the kids have helped them, too.
“I have learned that even though these girls all have a hard story to tell, they have a second story of perseverance and survival,” concluded Orellana. “With recognition and focus on our strengths, I believe anyone can achieve greatness.”