by Melissa Diamond, Public Affairs Intern

It sounds counter-intuitive to say that my work with Hammer has led me around the world, but it’s true.

I began volunteering at Hammer in high school and began to work at the Day Program immediately after graduation. Even when I am away at college in Virginia, the individuals served by Hammer inspire me daily. The walls of my dorm room are plastered with drawings from Gina at Emery and paintings I made with Jon at Cedarwood over winter break two years ago. I never expected that the strength of my relationships with the clients at Hammer would lead to me to move across the world for three months, farther from Hammer than ever before.

Painting made with Jon Leverentz (Cedarwood) in December 2011. We both loved this quote and worked together on this painting.

Painting made with Jon Leverentz (Cedarwood) in December 2011. We both loved this quote and worked together on this painting.

Last summer I traveled to Jerusalem on a school multi-faith pilgrimage trip to explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is an issue that I have always seen as relevant to my life, but when I heard about how the conflicts affected the lives of individuals with disabilities, it became more relevant to me than ever before.

On the fourth day of my trip, we visited the Princess Basma Center for Disabled Children, an organization that serves Palestinian children with disabilities in East Jerusalem. As soon as we got there I was excited about the organization and was anxious to find ways to get involved. However, after speaking with families of the children who were there, I learned that the services offered by the center were not as easy to access as they seemed.

In order to travel to the center, families living in the West Bank (in the Palestinian/Israel territories) must apply for a visa (known as a Tazrih) three months in advance. The Tazrih allows them to stay at the center for a maximum of three weeks. I thought about Gina and what her life would be like if she were living in the West Bank. Rather than receiving daily services, education and recreation, she would likely be locked up in her home and hidden from the world. To me, this issue transcended all political discussions about Israelis and Palestinians. Anyone can have autism (or a disability). Children cannot control where they are born and the services they receive should not be contingent on their nationality. I was determined to take action.

Gina (Emery) and I at my birthday celebration this year.

Gina (Emery) and I at my birthday celebration this year.

I began raising money to design a program that would train mothers of children with autism living in the West Bank in Applied Behavior Analysis, an intervention for autism. In exchange for the training, mothers in the program will serve as therapists for each others’ children in a cooperative for five hours a week. This program will allow parents in the West Bank to work with their child with autism without the burden of travel and will allow children with autism to receive consistent programming.

In April, I was awarded a $9,000 grant from the Resolution Project at the Clinton Global Initiative University conference to implement this project. I will be taking a semester off from my junior year of college to live in the West Bank along with the four ABA therapists I have hired for the program and will oversee parents training programs and lead autism education initiatives in Jenin.

One of the children who will participate in the cooperative ABA program in Jenin.

One of the children who will participate in the cooperative ABA program in Jenin.

When I was in Jenin the other week launching the program, I often found myself sharing stories about the individuals I have worked with at Hammer and the things they have accomplished. I tell them stories about swimming and reading with Gina and about Tyone’s love of animals. I show them pictures of Jon’s artwork and Pat’s (1st Ave) latch hooking. For the first time, these stories are showing the parents in Jenin that their child’s disability does not prevent their child from having talents and abilities.

Those served by Hammer do not get caught up in the artificial lines that divide society. To most, the traps of politics, race and religion are invisible. Instead, they see people for who they really are—individuals who each want to make the world a better place in their own way. Although they may never know it, Hammer residents are giving hope to families around the world.

Mothers at an information session about A Global Voice for Autism’s parent training program in Jenin, Palestine.

Mothers at an information session about A Global Voice for Autism’s parent training program in Jenin, Palestine.

 On Thursday, August 1st, Hammer CEO John Estrem will support A Global Voice for Autism by speaking at our Disability Services Around the World lecture fundraiser. More information can be found on the Jenin Austim Project blog.