The "Etgarim" (Meaning "challenges" in Hebrew) foundation is a nonprofit organization that organizes all kinds of sporting activities for people with special needs. It operates under the sponsorship of the Misgav Regional Council in the Galilee in northern Israel.
In the heart of that region lies the city of Karmiel, where a running club that is integrating people with special needs was established. The club originally was meant to help rehabilitate IDF soldiers, but now it is a place that offers disabled people a chance to find new motivation and purpose.
The group's long distance running coach, Roee Lahav, is shedding some light on the group's activities, benefits and its special purpose.
Tell us about the activities the club partakes in. Is it limited to running or are there other activities?
"Primarily, the Karmiel-Misgav walking and running group, which is part of the wonderful "Etgarim" foundation, has a very special kind of charm. I've always said that our patent is easily replicated and I won't be the least bit upset if someone copies the idea. In fact, I encourage it.
"My group is one of a dozens operated by Etgarim nationwide. By definition, it's a walking and running group but I would further define it as a powerful tool that facilitates connections between people with or without special needs, which culminates in fulfilling people's full potentials in a way that is truly delightful to watch.
"The foundation also operates 12 other kinds of extreme sports activities."
In what regions of the country does the running occur?
"My running group operates in the city of Karmiel twice a week, and meets the needs of people from all over the Misgav Regional Council. We don't limit ourselves to the urban part, though. Sometimes we venture to small nature clearings interspersed throughout the city."
Whose brainchild was this concept?
"The foundation was originally conceived as a way to help rehabilitate IDF soldiers by an amazing person named Yoel Sharon, who was wounded in the Yom Kippur War. He wanted to find a new way to continue his rehabilitation and feel alive again.
"The sporting activities, while requiring plenty of accessibility for certain individuals, creates the possibility for personal empowerment. I can personally attest that people in my group feel on equal footing to each other regardless of circumstance."
Tell us about the steps that were taken to establish the group
"It began about seven years ago, by literally walking door-to-door in community housings, speaking with multiple welfare-related departments within Karmiel and the Misgav Regional Council, and also some educational frameworks, through which many of the running group's participants come from."
"The lion's share of the work happened due to a couple of inspirational women. One is group coordinator Talia Nadler and the other is Gilat Fish, who was the group's trainer for the first two years of its existence.
"Talia is the group's engine until this day. Every social activity is organized and executed by her with the help of volunteers. The need for community-related sporting activities has existed for a long time and sometimes it's puzzling how this operation didn't actually happen until it came to Karmiel.
"Fortunately, for seven years now the group meets twice a week, occasionally meeting outside of activity hours due to interpersonal connections that came to be because of this group. We invite everyone to come and see what we're all about."
Tell us about the kind of people who participate. Is it mostly the same people or is every group different?
"Our group involves people from every aspect of Israeli society: men, women, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze - regardless of physical or cognitive limitations. For example, people with oligophrenia (a group of pathologic mental states that are congenital or acquired in early infancy), diminished cognitive capability, visually impaired individuals and others."
What are some of the benefits you’ve seen acquired from the running group?
"When you take two people, one of which has a certain limitation that prevents him from doing any long-term activity and the other does not, it forms a certain 'unit.' These two will receive specific instructions and rely upon each other to complete it. Each achievement is individual.
"For instance, if someone on the spectrum of autism is struggling to complete a 15-minute run, the volunteer that accompanies him helps him go through it, whether by calming him down, establishing a more rhythmical run, timing hydration breaks etc.
"These small details do not come by easily for people on the spectrum, so this help substantially increases the chance of him completing it, which enhances the feeling of accomplishment and empowerment.
"I'll never forget how I was having a hard time sticking to a physical schedule before joining Etgarim. That connection strengthened me and established a more consistent schedule that made me improve."
Is there a competitive element or is it strictly for fun?
"The running program has several points in which we participate in external competitions. It's optional, as for some it could be something that induces anxiety, but others deal with it just fine. If I'm a man with a disability and experience no moments of fame and competitive accomplishment, it could be a bit sad."
"The mere fact I would get to participate in a race in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Be'er Sheva and so on would help me feel as equal, so the competition becomes even more meaningful for people who live with a disability."
From your experience, do you think running rewards you with something unique? Something that you won’t get from cycling or swimming?
"That's a fairly easy question for someone who is in love with running, but I'll give my point of view on the matter with the last 10 years in mind. Running in pairs involves elements of long-term planning and the strengthening of our muscular system.
"When running, as opposed to cycling or swimming, we 'drag' our entire body weight with us. When we reach the top of a hill or even a mountain, there's certain mental high that you get and that can be very exciting. The endorphins your body releases during running is the body's natural way of relieving pain or stress and can be a great mood booster."
Do you collect membership fees or is it free to enter?
"Etgarim has been operational for 20 years and recruits funds to operate all of the highly varied sporting activities it runs every week, so membership fees are kept low and affordable. The monthly fees never surpass 70 NIS and in many cases it's below that."
Anything else you’d like to emphasize about the running club?
"I've personally been training this group for over five years and it became like a second job. Being close to people with disabilities has improved me as a person, and the impact it had on my family is awesome. It grants an amazing value and improves our quality of life.
"It is scientifically proven that volunteering in frameworks such as ours connects us to our inner selves and makes us feel more human. The connections I've formed here will undoubtedly stay with me for a lifetime."