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By Gillian Granoff

Twelve-year old Adi Altshuler was looking for a way to make a difference in the world when she began volunteering at the age of 12 at ILAN, an Israeli NGO for children with physical disabilities. She became a personal tutor to Kobi Kfir, a three-year-old child with cerebral palsy.

Kfir's mother, Claudia, had watched her son struggle with social isolation as he was unable to speak. He was longing to connect with the outside world. The moment Adi met Kfir, their connection was instantaneous. They quickly learned to understand each other, and the acceptance and love between them transformed both of their lives. Kfir's confidence soared.

Claudia and Adi were so inspired by Kfir's change that they aspired to replicate the experience for others.

In 2002, Adi joined LEAD, a leadership development program. With Claudia and LEAD's support, the amutah (nonprofit in the Hebrew language) Krembo Wings was born. Named after the popular winter Israeli version of the Moon Pie and Mallomar, Krembo Wings is the country's first inclusive youth movement that connects children with and without special needs, in an environment free of fear, stigma, and judgment.

Krembo Wings began humbly with four members in Hod Hasharon, Israel. Nowadays, the organization has dozens of branches and serves thousands of people ages 7-22 from all cultural, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds throughout Israel.

This growth is attributed to the Solomonic leadership of Krembo's management team past and present. Following Adi's departure in 2009, Ofira Roten became CEO. Talia Bejerano, before becoming CEO in 2016, developed and helped implement an intensive counselor training program as well as modernized procedures that allowed Krembo Wings to expand the number of communities it serves. Krembo's Senior VP, Merav Boaz, has spearheaded the aumtah's expansion by working closely with a multitude of municipalities to transform not just the minds and hearts of its members but to change public perception of disability in each community.

Entrusting its members with the responsibility for leading the activities is a critical component of their leadership training. Each branch has a youth manager who oversees activities, matching two members with one with special needs youth. Together they participate in arts projects, musical activities, and educational games, all centered around a theme selected by members of the Krembo staff.

In intensive trainings, members learn to manage challenges of working with the special needs population, in particular how to create activities that will engage them and their strengths. Krembo's members face a range of cognitive impairments including Autism or Asperger's, severe mental and sensory disorders, and physical impairments like cerebral palsy.

For participants the experience has been life changing. Kiara moved to Israel from Brooklyn with her family. "Krembo showed me ... no matter where you are from, or what your gender, background, or (dis)ability is, you can always accept and treat them equally. You shouldn't fear them."

Gali, a 7th grader, says: "The experiences at Krembo have helped (my) self-esteem and taught me to care for others. I have learned to understand and be more accepting of (people with) disabilities."

In a world where special needs are segregated from mainstream communities, Krembo gives people the space to work, play, sing, and dance in seamless interactions. For people with disabilities, the acceptance receives from the Krembo community gives them confidence and normalizes their differences.

Shirelle, 17, is in her 3rd year at Krembo. "We are not here to take care of the special needs kids. We help them, have fun with them, and work with them. The first time I was here, I realized that I had made the greatest decision of my life."

The success of Krembo Wings gained the recognition of UNESCO which, in 2018, honored the organization as a special advisor to the United Nations in matters of disabilities. Its success "as a world leader in the integration of children and youth with and without disabilities is in empowering social activities" regardless of differences in the communities it serves. It doesn't matter if the community is secular or religious; rich or poor; black or white; Druze, Muslim, Christian, Bedouin, or Jewish. Acceptance and inclusion as well as partnership, not patronage, are the guiding principles.

Despite Kfir's passing, his impact lives on. "Kfir was my greatest teacher," remarked Claudia, who continues to sit on Krembo's board of directors. "He taught me to love and accept myself and go beyond my dreams."

Krembo Wings is relentless in its commitment to fulfill Adi and Kfir's dream to create a world that sees only the humanity each person, able-bodied or severely disabled, brings to the world, one in which children of any background or ability can collaborate to fulfill their hopes and dreams. #

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