Flower Power: National Tutoring Program Helps Disadvantaged Pupils Blossom

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By Nofit Milstein
REHOVOT, Israel - May 7, 1998 - Mix one party-loving, fun-seeking Israeli college student with one 12-year-old, newly-arrived Russian immigrant. Add one disadvantaged child whose father is in jail or an Ethiopian girl living in a cramped, shabby trailer who has never seen a movie nor splashed freely with other children in a cool blue pool. Repeat at least twice a week for 12 months. Watch mixture mature and become almost inseparable.

This is the unique recipe for Israel's national tutoring program dubbed Perach (Hebrew for "flower" and the acronym for "tutoring project"), one of the largest such programs in the world, akin to the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

In a recently held annual ceremony honoring outstanding Perach participants, 12 college students had the opportunity to express their gratitude for taking part in the program. But shouldn't it be the other way around?

Chosen for their exceptional influence on the lives of their young partners, participants described their experiences and the project that made it all possible. Founded more than 20 years ago with the help of Prof. Haim Harari, then Dean of the Weizmann Institute of Science's Feinberg Graduate School and now Institute President and Chairman of Perach's Board of Directors, the program offers scholarships to students, from both private and public funds, covering up to 50 percent of college tuition. In return: a commitment to the Perach cause, saving disadvantaged children from falling through the cracks in Israeli society.

"Recognizing the great potential of college students' influence on these kids, we built an intense program, twice a week, every week," says Amos Carmeli, Perach's national director. But as the twelve would attest, twice a week was a mere formality. The lives of both mentors and students quickly became intertwined.

Take Gadiel Daltorf, a geography major who himself was once at the receiving end of the program. On an almost daily basis he tutored Sergei, a 12-year-old Russian immigrant, son of a single mom. Daltorf soon became Sergei's surrogate brother. And what do big brothers do when dad is not around? Daltorf taught Sergei how to ride a bike, took him on trips, and together, they developed the fine art of just hanging out.

"Each time we met," he says, "the goal was the same: to make Sergei smile." Mission accomplished.

Another of the 12 awardees, Beli Geva-Batiska, was paired with Meir. Meir's predicament: He had the misfortune to be born with a resemblance to his father. Meir's mother neglected him because she simply couldn't cope with this painful reminder of her ex-husband.

Meir became a frequent dinner guest-cum-family-member at Geva-Batiska's home. Meir had the opportunity, for the first time, to experience up close this model of a stable, caring and safe environment. The adolescent learned that he could love and be loved for the person he is, no conditions attached. Geva-Batiska gave of herself and received a hundredfold in return.

And that's what Perach is all about.

As Ayelet Arkin, who tutored an Ethiopian girl, said, "I fell in love with her the first time she took my hand. Perach has always been something special to me, something else. It pours light into the lives of children who feel that they have no one to look up to."

The program's success is astounding, attested to by the ongoing and numerous requests made by disadvantaged parents eager for their children's inclusion in Perach. Even though the program, managed out of the Kugler Perach Office Building on the Weizmann Institute campus, reaches out to 45,000 youngsters all over Israel, not all requests can be fulfilled. In a survey conducted last year, 95 percent of school counselors questioned responded, "Most children have benefited from the tutoring."

Perach is not just a feel-good program. The results are measurable. Meir's teacher, who once banned him from school trips because of his violent behavior, now says, "Meir is sensitive to other children and plays with them at recess." And Meir no longer suffers from a lack of attention in class. "He wants to succeed. His grades have improved." That translates into a 90 in math and a high grade in Torah, two hard-to-tackle subjects.

Perhaps the most important contribution is to the child's - and the mentor's - self-esteem. As Gadiel Daltorf puts it, "When during a neighborhood soccer game I heard Sergei, who hardly ever spoke, shouting at his teammates that they ought to kick better, I knew he was headed in the right direction."

The award ceremony was imbued with an atmosphere of fulfillment and gratitude - on both sides. The Perach tutors best express their feelings themselves: "I received my scholarship long before today." "I don't know why you're making a big deal over what I did. The kid did everything. He gave me so much."

Perach is funded in part by the Clore Foundation, U.K.; the Delek Foundation for Science, Education and Culture, Israel; the Abraham and Sonia Rochlin Foundation, Reno, Nevada; the South African Zionist Federation, Israel; and the Yad Avi Ha-Yishuv Foundation, Israel.

The Weizmann Institute of Science is a major center of scientific research and graduate study located in Rehovot, Israel.