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Kol HaBirah / Rachel Kohn

Many college students choose to kick back and relax during their summer vacations, but Jessica Serber highly recommends taking the opportunity to travel and do work you are passionate about.

Through the program Onward Israel, Serber, a nursing student in her junior year at George Mason University, spent eight weeks this summer volunteering with ALEH, a network of state-of-the-art facilities in Israel for children with severe, complex disabilities.

Serber assisted with the daily activities and therapiesin the daycare center at ALEH Negev, the rehabilitative village in Israel’s south. She’s never seen anything “remotely comparable” in the Greater Washington area to the facility she worked at, she said.

“A typical day for me started around 7 a.m., when I made my way to the central bus station in Be’er Sheva. Then I would get my daily breakfast of warm borekas while waiting for my bus.” At first, being completely immersed in the Hebrew language and Israeli culture was a little overwhelming for her, but after spending two months there “I felt like a natural by the end,” she said.

Serber had a roster of children she would work with in the morning, helping them use a walker, walk on their own with minimal assistance, or enjoy the “super accessible” playground.

After her lunch break, she would do some more exercising with the kids and then help feed them lunch. “I also was in the high nursery two days a week, which is a more specialized part of ALEH Negev,” said Serber. “There, I helped with physical therapy and occupational therapy on some of the more fragile residents. I also just liked to go there and spend time with them, talking to them and playing.”

“During my time at the high nursery, I bonded with a little girl who was around one year old. I don’t know what it was, but we both got along so well right away. I would play with her and do occupational therapy to help with her development. I also always tried to paint her toenails, but she was so wiggly that it never came out how I wanted, but on her anything looks adorable.”

“ALEH has a great outdoor area with water, so we would frequently go outside and sit and dip our toes in the water. I loved spending time with her, as she is such a little smart and inquisitive girl.”

The most challenging part of the experience for Serber was to see one of the children was struggling. “Once you form a bond or are invested in someone’s life, it impacts you when you see they are not doing well. At the same time, it provided me with motivation to help them and encourage them to succeed,” she said.

Her day would end around 2 p.m., followed by the bus ride back to Be’er Sheva.

Originally from Indiana, Serber’s family moved to northern Virginia when she was in middle school, though they no longer live in the area. She attended Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax from sixth through eighth grade before moving on to West Springfield High School.

After she graduates from George Mason, Serber hopes to start work right away in a hospital or as a travel nurse. “Because of my major, I really wanted an internship in Israel that would have some relevance to the medical/caretaking field,” she said. Her previous experience as volunteer at INOVA Fairfax Hospital and Brain Injury Services helped prepare her for working at ALEH Negev since many of the residents have brain injuries, she added.

“It was special to see how highly regarded the residents at ALEH were. They have a different mindset there of trying to empower them and treat them with the same respect as people without disabilities. This was very refreshing to see and I know that they are helping to change the perception of the disabled in Israel.”

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